On 24th April 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500.
On 24th April 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500. The accident happened after warnings that the building was structurally unsafe were ignored. The consequences were disastrous;the whole building was reduced to rubble in just 90 seconds.
Rana Plaza was the most deadly structural failure in modern times.
Of course after the collapse there was universal uproar, as journalists and the public alike demanded to know why workers were permitted to toil in such perilous conditions in the first place.
But, one year on, are we doing enough to prevent another tragedy like this? Or have we let ourselves forget the consequences of mass consumerism so we can continue enjoying the affordable fashion that cheap labour brings?
The conditions at the Rana Plaza building were not unique. Similar ‘sweatshops’ exist throughout the developing world as countries aim to offer the lowest labour costs to international companies looking for manufacturers. By offering the lowest bid, often by minimising wages and building factories as cheaply as possible, these countries encourage big companies to bring business their way.
So what does this mean for workers? The mostly female workforce before the factory collapse received a salary of 3,000 taka (£23.05) a month.Believe it or not, this was a substantial increase from the former wage of 1,660 taka (£12.75) that had been the standard for ten years. Currently, 3.5 million workers in Bangladesh alone produce clothing and accessories for us to enjoy.
Then, of course there is the issue of child labour. India is the world capital for child labour, according to a report by the United Nations. These children are often abused by factory owners and foremen. We must ask ourselves, who is to blame: the factory owners abusing the children firsthand, the corporations who give contracts to these factories, or the consumers, whose buying habits are perpetuating these practices?
Thankfully, out of the despair of the Rana Plaza disaster, there have been some positive outcomes. So far, more than 150 companies have signed the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh. This legally binding agreement between companies and unions means companies are committed to independent inspections.
Primark was the first retailer to hold its hands up to using the factory to produce its products, and has since given $640 (£381.24) compensation to survivors and the families of victims. The media attention derived from Rana Plaza means Bangladeshi factory owners must now acknowledge that their entire market could be in jeopardy if they do not change their ways.
Yet there is still not enough being done. Our culture of ‘fast fashion’ means we just cannot give up our High Street bargains. The fast-fashion system means those of us on low-incomes can enjoy the latest trends, which makes us feel good. But, in exchange for satisfying our own longings, longings that are ultimately insatiable as each new purchase only fuels more desires, we promote the suffering of others.
So how to we break out of this destructive cycle? Boycotting Primark is no use; this will only add unemployment to the problems in India. We need to get savvy. Consumers must stop hiding their heads in the sand and numbly believing the mission statements and window-dressed ‘disclosures’ by big conglomerates.
However, the truth of the matter is that the power of the ordinary consumer is limited when tackling such a massive issue. Fashion companies must change their practices, and fast. To provide a minimum wage of 5,000 taka (£38.41) a month, the price of a pair of jeans currently costing £20 would increase by only 80 pence. Why are brands so afraid to implement this change? Do they really think such a minute price rise will send shoppers elsewhere?
These ethical practices could actually be an excellent marketing tool. Who wouldn’t love a dress that said ‘by paying 50p more for this I’m saving lives’ on the label?
A Solution in Sight?
It is clear that the solution to ending sweatshop practices is far from simple. If businesses remove their trade from these countries the consequences will be disastrous. Yet it is hard to monitor the conditions of workers who are so far away and hence removed from our conscious sphere.
Ultimately, this is about saving lives. It is no good distancing ourselves and believing that if we cannot see these human rights violations, they are not real. The difference between these workers in the East and us consumers in the West is merely an accident of birth. Brands and shoppers alike must reevaluate the value of human life.
Our culture of fast fashion need not be abandoned; it might just mean paying an extra 50 pence or £1 for the clothes we so desperately crave.
That meagre sum is a much smaller price to pay for humanity than if we allow such suffering in the name of consumerism to continue.
What do you think? Has enough been done since the disaster? Have your say in the comments section below.
Image: Wikipedia/ Gary Dee