A year ago this week 1,129 people lost their lives when the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, trapping thousands of garment workers as it fell. 12 months on, much has changed, and much has remained static.
On the surface, labour conditions for those in garment factors in Bangladesh has improved. Groups such as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety have been formed by several of biggest US retailers, and similar accords have been struck in Europe, unions in the Bangladeshi garment sector have been allowed to form , and public knowledge and access to information about what products they buy is increasingly freely available online.
However, the situation is far from rectified, and the possibility of similar collapses or factory fires as seen in Pakistan in 2012. Firstly, the Rana Plaza disaster is more than its death toll, with hundreds left with life long injuries and impairments, children left orphaned and families without a source of income. The International Labour Organisation set up the Rana Plaza Arrangement in the wake of the collapse, aiming to raise $40 million, the estimated amount needed to compensate all victims for medical bills and lost wages. A year on, little of this has been raised. Granted, some companies involved have given directly to families and others via charities, but the families of those affected by the collapse are still far from compensated for their loss fiscally.
Secondly, the accords signed to monitor and improve worker conditions vary greatly. Some retailers are now bound by legal liability by signing up to agreements, but many others are far less binding. Additionally, the responsibilities of the agreements can change. For example, some agreements do not require retailers to improve or give money to improve facilities, merely meaning they must cease trading with them. Whilst this does reduce the rate of unsafe factories, it also means several factories suddenly close whilst the retailer moves to another factory, leaving hundreds unemployed.
Likewise, since the unions have been allowed to form, ant-union violence and even murder is not uncommon, and as at least 30% of the workforce in a factory needs to be union members before it is recognised, many have to meet in secret for fear of being fired if they are found to be involved. All of this leads to an environment of fear where unions may be able to be formed, but they are both actively prevented from doing so, and actively disrupted if they do manage to form. Further, despite improvements being made since Rana Plaza, pay still remains low, 14 hour working days across a six or seven day working week are not uncommon and sexual abuse towards women is still prominent. On top of that, women still have little protection against dismissal if they seek action against this violence, or even if they are found to be pregnant.
Lastly, the situation in Bangladesh may be improving, albeit not quickly enough, but the demand for garments continues to grow alongside the emerging middle classes, meaning that other countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia continue to see growing numbers of factories appearing, all of various safety standards. In an increasingly globalised world, retailers will move to where the cost of doing business is lowest, meaning that the increasing labour costs and overheads in Bangladesh put them at a disadvantage over say Vietnam, who may well benefit in the coming years from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. In short, Bangladesh could soon be unattractive to manufactures, and by actually increasing their job quality, they also may inadvertently being putting their jobs at risk.
So what does this mean to you, the consumer? Not a lot. Boycotts are ineffective and just cost already struggling families' jobs, but with the wealth of information available online it is easier than ever before to find out where your £5 jeans came from, and to push both retailers and manufactures to improve standards, and to push governments to draft stronger, legally binding labour standards.
Only by making a global minimum labour standard, that is legally enforceable, will we stop another Rana Plaza. This would prevent manufactures from moving operations around the world and seeking cheaper, less ethical sources of labour. This would mean better working conditions, pay, freedom of association and reduce child labour rates. This will mean increased costs to the consumer, but that could be as little as 2p per t-shirt and allow labourers in Bangladesh a decent wage. Surely this minute increase is worth the benefits it will bring to hundreds of thousands worldwide?
Don't stop buying those t-shirts and trainers from the high street, just question where it came from.