24 May 2013

After the Bangladesh apocalypse, will it be business as usual?

In a suburb of Dhaka we stood on the edge of an awful monument to man’s greed and his folly: the site of five clothing factories, piled one on top of the other.

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Now it’s a vast burial ground of rubble and twisted metal. Hundreds of people were so entombed here that their bodies were never recovered. The labels of clothes made for several foreign brands, including Primark, were among the wreckage and still fluttering in the breeze.

Peering in through a barbed wire fence were some of the relatives of the more than 1,100 dead, singing and weeping, calling out to their missing loved ones to come home.

These women are living the nightmare of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

“It was like the apocalypse,” said Ajiron, a clothing worker, recalling how the building shook and she was trampled underfoot in the stampede to escape.

“Have any of you received compensation?” I asked a group of women who had crowded around to share their grief.

One had received an advance of her salary, but the others shook their heads: no reliable lists were retrieved of those who worked in the factory complex, and for the hundreds whose relatives were never found, no proof that they ever did.

Women at the scene blamed the building’s owner and the individual factory owners inside the complex, which was known to have a dangerous crack. It was after a power cut that an emergency generator was switched on, which then shook the complex to its foundations; but it seems to me an unavoidable fact that this disaster can be put down in part to the west’s insatiable demand for cut price clothing.

We visited some of the injured, dispersed around several hospitals. Primark was just one of 20 or so foreign brands outsourcing to these workers. The company announced this week that it plans to make payments to all survivors and the families of the dead, though it’s still working out how to do that.

Rozina Begum told me she was sewing on the second floor where the British high street retailer bought clothes. She was buried alive for three days, all the while speaking to the rescuers struggling to pull her out. And when they gave up on freeing her, she came up with her own solution.

“I said give me a knife,” she told me. “I will cut my own arm off. They gave me a knife – and I cut my arm here. ”

Her sister was never found. So though Rozina has lost half a limb, she’s just relieved to be alive.

“I am not sad I lost my arm,” she claimed. “Maybe that’s my fate. But I need to work and I don’t want to work in the clothing industry any more.”

Yet the rag trade is part of Bangladesh’s life blood. It employs over four and a half million people, most of them women: economically empowered female commuters in an Islamic country. Even if they are the lowest paid in the world, at a starting salary around twenty three pounds a month.

Smaller factories frequently look like 21st century concrete sweatshops, where attempts to organise unions are often shut down. New buildings are supposed to apply for occupancy certificates. In the last five years, only six such certificates have been issued.

We visited a factory full of children making T-shirts, trousers and tops. At least one of the children looked about nine years old. The owner said he had supplied shorts and jerseys to a buyer in the UK, though not a high street brand, and that a shipment to Canada was next.

Everybody had heard about the latest disaster, but many seemed grateful to have work, including Sikha who told me she was ten.

“My mum can’t work in a clothing factory because I have a younger sister,” she explained. “So to provide for them, I have to work here. I want to be a sewing operator when I grow up and earn a big salary.”

The owner said he knew that child labour wasn’t legal . It didn’t seem to matter to him. In 12 years, his factory had never been inspected. And anyway, he wanted to build a new factory with several floors and he was training up a bigger workforce for the future.

Bangladesh’s biggest clothing lobby group is housed in a building which the country’s high court has also declared illegal.

Its president is already reeling from the biggest safety scandal in his industry’s history and he was shocked when I then told him about the children I’d seen. The factory can’t have been one of his members, he said – it wasn’t – but he admitted that if work was subcontracted to smaller out-of-the-way factories it was much harder to monitor the workforce inside.

Now this £13bn industry is on notice. Disney has said it’s leaving. Others, including Primark, Marks and Spencers and Tesco, have signed an agreement enforcing tougher safety inspections and helping pay their suppliers for building repairs .

I visited one shop floor supplying several big British brands which bans child labour and takes safety very seriously. But looking out of the window I could see where eight people were recently burnt to death in the factory next door.

The biggest question is whether more than 1100 dead in a single incident really is a wake up call for Bangladesh’s garment industry or not. The site of this disaster reminded me of ground zero in New York, and this needs to be a “year zero” moment for this astonishingly unsafe business.

The government is talking of more liberal labour laws and regular reviews of the minimum wage. Foreign brands have committed to policing their suppliers far more rigorously. But what needs to happen is a fundamental change of the rules, which force manufacturers, foreign brands and the Bangladeshi authorities into a downward spiral: the constant pressure on working conditions and ultimately prices to beat the clothing competition worldwide and keep cost conscious consumers happy.

And when the television cameras have gone, when this outpouring of grief subsides, will it be back to business as usual, or change for good?

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3 reader comments

  1. Joff Day says:

    I was in Dhaka last week. I heard stories of money being given to relatives to bury their dead family members by the government. The problem was that people were turning up weeping and wailing claiming bodies – and the government 10,000Taka and taking the bodies away only to be followed by the real relatives, now with no body. Bodies were later found in alleys. The government did catch on. The problem is that corruption is so endemic in the country you never really know who to believe.

  2. Heather says:

    As a pensioner I really appreciate being able to buy fashionable and well fitting clothes which I can afford. However not at the expense of other’s suffering. But is it necessary that workers must suffer slum conditions to produce affordable clothes. There seems to be a tradition for sweat shops having really bad working conditions and the same clothes made in the same work shops are sold at different prices depending on the label. Perhaps it is about time the trade was regulated. It is because mostly poor women with little political clout are employed that the workers have unregulated working conditions – and are exploited. This was going on in London and New York when my great aunts were employed there. Since the same clothes are sold at different prices that should not affect the prices in the shops. You pay for how posh the shop is and the social clout of the carrier bag, not for the value of the actual product. There is no excuse for not having international regulations for working conditions.

  3. Alan says:

    Maybe it’s high time the government of Bangladesh started actually governing. The obvious corruption at the highest level is responsible for this and other tragedies that have occurred, not the consumers of the clothing. Also, it is clear a blind eye is being turned where children are being employed and that is shameful. Do any men actually do any meaningful work in that country or do they just sit about chatting while the women and children do all the work and take all the risks?

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