The world’s gaze is fixed firmly on the grim realities the Dhaka factory collapse. It has been denounced as the world’s worst garment industry disaster ever, with 1,127 pronounced dead.
It began on 24 April, just hours after factory owner Mohammed Sohel Rana ignored warnings to evacuate the Rana Plaza factory for safety reasons, ordering staff back to work with threats of docked pay and violence.
Minutes later, the building collapsed around the 2,000 workers inside. And then, all that was left was rubble, and before the dust had barely settled, Rana was arrested by Pakistani police for his part in the disaster, along with eight others.
About 3.6 million people work for Bangladesh’s garment industry, with some earning a little under £25 a month. Low wages and duty free access by western companies make Bangladesh an epicentre for high street fashion production, but offers little protection from the often substandard working conditions.
“Fundamentally, everyone wants to hold everyone else responsible,” says Sam Maher from Labour Behind the Label (LBL). “The designers blame the suppliers, the suppliers blame the factories and the factories blame the government. There was no way brands and retailers had any doubt these working conditions were in place, but until this point, people just looked away.”
For the garment workers of Dhaka, this is an all too familiar occurrence. It is the fourth clothing industry disaster to hit Bangladesh in six months: on 9 May, a fire tore through a clothing factory in an industrial part of Dhaka, killing 8 people. Seven were killed in a fire at Smart Export Garments factory on 27 January; 112 more perished in a fire at Tazreen Fashions in Dhaka in November 2012.
Steps are being taken to avoid another garment industry disaster in Bangladesh. Several fashion brands have signed the Accord on Building and Fire Safety, promoted by the likes of LBL and the International Labour Organisation, and the Bangladeshi government has agreed to relax trade union laws.
But according to Owen Tudor, head of international relations at the TUC, it’s been a similar story in the past, with factory owners overruling government consent, leading to people being fired for establishing trade unions.
Tudor also alleges that whilst commitments to increase minimum wage seem to have been made, the proposed increase is far off the required living wage for the average worker of Bangladesh.
He also refutes claims that consumer demand has led contributed to lower wages: Information from Indian trade unions suggests that increasing the price of a £6 garment by 2p could double the wage of an average garment worker in Bangladesh.
“We accept that the driving factor in sourcing jobs from developing economies is the low wage,” says Tudor. “Western jobs now depend on higher skill levels, design and productivity. But the difference in wages doesn’t require the absolute poverty pay workers receive in Bangladesh. In the long term, trading down to get cheaper goods puts us in a race to the bottom, with retailers driving down wages in other countries, too. The only ones benefiting from the situation are company owners.”
Government officials blame substandard building materials for the collapse of the eight story building, which was built on swampland; three floors of which were built illegally, as well as the vibrations of heavy machinery from the five garment factories working within the building.
But critics say authorities are trying to distract attention from their alleged poor oversight into building regulations and the protection of workers, only one percent of whom at present have access to trade unions and are rarely given a contract, allowing staff to work for cheap and often slip under the radar.
“This is about retailers having responsibilities...It’s very difficult to change a big juggernaut, but we need to slow down on how fast fashion works, says Maher.
As the enormity of the disaster sinks in, others continue around the world. On 16 May, a collapse at the Wing Star Shoes plant in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, killed two and injured nine.
“Today’s story is Bangladesh, but any moment it could shift to another part of the developing world, says Tudor. “Translating the anger people feel about the disaster in Bangladesh to other parts of the world can hopefully establish worldwide agreements, giving every worker the rights and respect they deserve.”
The Rana Plaza disaster is one to be remembered. The survivor trapped for 17 days; the haunting image of an embracing couple enshrined in rubble will serve as historic reminders that workers should not be commodities. Sustained international pressure can help to ensure Bangladesh doesn’t slip back into old habits, but whether the situation will change significantly remains to be seen. After all, as Maher says: “we’ve got to try and sell the impossible.”