Over the last few days I have been following reports of the Rana Plaza factory collapsing in on hundreds of garment workers in Savar, near the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Immediate reactions to the disaster began to cropping up on Twitter in the morning of the disaster. By the end of the day, the tragedy made international headlines. As I write this, rescue efforts are in vain and it is suggested that there may be up to 1000 dead and hundreds more still alive under the rubble. This is the second Ready Made Garment (RMG) industrial disaster in only five months - last December, the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka claimed 112 lives.
The fire has chilling parallels to New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. 140 garment workers, mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrant girls, lost their lives because the managers blocked the exits to stairwells and fire escapes to prevent their employees from taking breaks. The fire resulted in the organisation of the largest garment workers union in America and had a significant impact on worker safety protection laws in the United States.
I wonder what the long-term impact the Tazreen Factory fire and the Raza Plaza disaster will have on corporate responsibility and government legislation in Bangladesh. To date, only the European retailers have paid compensation to the fire victims, retail buyers have lobbied aggressively against reforms of workplace safety in Bangladeshi legislation and unions seem to be ineffective. Unlike the last century, the ability of the labour movement to affect change in the workplace is mitigated by powerful lobby groups and government corruption.
Today, the Pakistani government announced the arrests of the factory owners, which key labour organisers dismiss as a 'PR stunt'. It is widely known and an accepted practice that industrialists will just pay bribes to the health and safety government inspectors. According to Ifty Islam of Asian Tiger Capital Partners writing in the ft.com, more than 10% of Bangladeshi MPs are factory owners; many more have financial interests in the industry, as do some government officials.
It appears then that local industry and government are in each others pockets, and multinational corporations are not willing to collaborate with unions to uphold safety in the workplace. Those of us who are morally outraged by these events feel frustrated by the lack of tools to affect change. We know that at the heart of this tragedy is the knock on effect of our consumer culture: the purchase of a £2 t-shirt at Primark causes the death of 350 human beings halfway around the world. This is unacceptable. So, what can be done?
The responsibility lies chiefly the global retailers and their Bangladeshi RMG suppliers. Some have suggested a consumer boycott of Bangladeshi garments at these retailers, but a boycott could be counter-productive because doing so could jeopardise the job security of the garment workers. The best course of action is to put consumer pressure on Primark. We can't shift our society's addiction to cheap fashion overnight, but we can insist that as the buyers, Primark must put pressure on their supply chain to adhere to the basic tenets of a safe working environment. Here are four alternatives to a boycott:
As a consumer, pressure the corporation. You can write to Primark and insist they take full responsibility for their entire supply chain.
As a British citizen and/or UK tax-payer, pressure the UK government. You can also write about your concerns to both the Right Honourable MP Justine Greening, secretary of state for international development and the All Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion and suggest they insist that they exert pressure on the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) which is funded largely by the Department for International Development. Call for the suspension of Primark's membership to the ETI until they improve their working practices.
As a world citizen, write to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). They are the trade body for the RMG industry in Bangladesh. Urge them to fully collaborate with the Bangladeshi government in legislating for safer working conditions.