Published on 25 Apr 2013 Sections ,

Bangladesh building collapse: what price fast fashion?

As the garments industry in Bangladesh suffers yet another fatal disaster costing hundreds of lives, Channel 4 News examines why such incidents keep on occurring, and the role of western fashion.

As the garments industry in Bangladesh suffers yet another fatal disaster costing hundreds of lives, Channel 4 News examines why such incidents keep on occurring (Reuters)

One by one they pulled the bodies from the rubble, eventually inundating the capital’s morgues, graveyards and hospitals after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, north west of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.

Surrounded by wailing, grieving relatives, firefighters battled alongside soldiers to try and retrieve anyone they could, aware that delays would only add to the rapidly growing death toll.

At least 230 people were killed when building housing factories supplying retailers such as Primark and Matalan came crashing down shortly before 9am, local time, on Wednesday morning. It is feared many more are dead.

Workers described a “deafening bang”. “I thought there was an earthquake,” said Shirin Akhter, 22, six floors up when the complex crumbled.

But according to the industrial police, the 3,122 workers reportedly inside the building when it collapsed were not supposed to have been inside at all.

Cracks

Officials from the police and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association (BGMEA) had instructed Mohammad Sohel Rana, the building’s owner, to suspend operations after cracks were noticed in the walls the previous day.

By Thursday, some 1,000 protesters took to the offices of the main industry body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association (BGMEA), throwing stones and clashing with riot police. Workers demanded all garments factories to be shut, and the owners punished for accidents.

Protests then erupted elsewhere in the city – Gazipur, in the north east of the capital, where traffic was brought to a standstill, with the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urging calm and for people to help with the rescue effort amid public outpourings of grief and anger.

Police have ordered the arrest of the owner, who has gone into hiding, and he has been ordered to attend the courts.

The grief, however, is made all the more painful for coming just five months after another garments factory disaster – the fire at the Tazreen factory in the Ashulia district of the capital, in which 112 people died.

“Something happens, there is a lot of talk and discussion about it, committees are formed to investigate, things are written,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, a researcher at the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS).

“But then nothing happens as a result of it. In 23 years that garments has been going in Bangladesh, not a single person has been held responsible for any of these accidents, let alone punished,” he said.

Success or disaster?

The garments industry is at once a PR success and a disaster for Bangladesh.

There are about 4,400 factories in the country, according to the World Bank, employing 3.5m workers, although indirect employment is thought to be around 10m.

The industry accounts for three quarters of the country’s exports; Bangladesh’s share in world garment exports has nearly doubled to 4.3 per cent from 2000 to 2009.

Per capita GDP has shot up from $226 to $482, over the same period, in constant 2000 US$ prices. Along with remittances, “over the last two decades, GDP growth was underpinned by exports”, the majority of which were garments, according to the World Bank.

The growth is driven by companies such as Primark and Matalan which source ready-made clothes – mainly low cost and high volume – from such factories.

Companies such as Zara, H&M, Benetton and Gap have been described by the World Bank as “pioneers” in the fast fashion business model, which requires quick cycles of production, “rapid prototyping and small order sizes”.

As a result, orders are placed in terms of weekly output and production continues “as long as there is sufficient demand”.

Read more: Bangladesh building collapse - death toll likely to rise

Clothes printed with Disney characters found at the site of the Tazreen factory, which caught on fire in November 2012

Workplace accidents

But the economic success the industry has brought has a dark and difficult side.

There have been more than 350 deaths in the garments industry in Bangladesh in the last three years due to buildings collapsing alone, according to the news website, bdnews24. The BILS said that 1,126 female workers had been killed at their workplace by the end of 2012.

There has been a string of fatal garments factory fires. For each, structural problems – lack of fire escapes, faulty wiring, or padlocked exits – are at least blamed, if not the cause of the deaths.

As well as the deaths and grief for victims, the government is aware that each incident only tarnishes the country’s image in the eyes of the world’s media, frequently being Bangladesh’s only mention in international news.

While factory owners are known for living in plush gated compounds, attend parties in Versailles and own properties abroad, workers are currently paid 3,000 taka (£24.85) a month, or 5,000 taka (£41.42) in overtime.

But, the industry as it exists in Bangladesh has thrived specifically because of the poor conditions and low wages.

“So far, low wages in the garment sector have partially compensated for poor logistics,” the World Bank said.

Although the sector has been credited with enabling thousands of unskilled women move from working as domestic servants to factory employees, sexual assaults against women in factories is rife, according to labour leaders.

Nevertheless, “the government has nurtured this industry,” Mr Ahmed said. “Because there are benefits. They have come from nothing to earning a lot of money, and that’s why the government thinks that whatever they do, the industry must be kept untouchable”.

Responsibility

Mr Ahmed said the responsibility for ridding the industry of such disasters falls with the state. “If the state cannot bring about justice, then who can? The state must take responsibility. The first thing we need to do is to set some sort of example. We have to pursue the matters through the courts and then punish.

“Then, the different organisations have to go to the factory buildings and have them investigated for safety and structural issues. If something is wrong, it needs to be fixed.

“The owners should of course ensure that everything is kept right, and if they do not, then they must be punished.

“And the overseas companies buying the goods – when they give their orders for garments, they should ensure they fully comply with Bangladesh law, with health and safety standards. They also need to consider – are they operating within international norms?”

As yet, the companies involved in sourcing “fast fashion” from Bangladesh have not given specific examples of how they intend to act following the disaster.

Primark said that it is “shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident”.

A spokesman added: “Primark’s ethical trade team is at this moment working to collect information, assess which communities the workers come from, and to provide support where possible.”