The poor pay a high price for our cheap clothes

The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh on April 24th 2013,where hundreds of people worked in appalling conditions, highlights the cruelties which are at the heart of our current economic system. When we buy clothes in a store on the High Street, we seldom reflect on the fact that, the only reason we can buy good quality clothes cheaply, is that the workers who make the clothes are often paid only pittance and work in very unsafe surroundings.
At 9 o’clock on April 24th 2013, just after work began, the Rana Plaza in the suburb of Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh collapsed. Some of the rescue workers estimated that there were as many as 2,500 workers in the building at the time. Once the rear of the building fell in, all eight floors collapsed like a deck of cards, killing more than 500 people mainly women from poor rural backgrounds.
Dilara Begum, who survived the collapse, told the media that workers had been advised to leave the building on the previous evening because cracks had appeared in the walls. On the following morning, supervisors told the garment workers that the building had been inspected on Tuesday night and had been declared safe. When the workers refused to enter the building because they feared it was structurally unsafe, they were informed that they would not be paid unless they returned to work. It seems that the owner of the Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana had received a permit to build a five-story building from the local municipality even though the municipality has no authority to grant such permits. To make matters worse, the owner added another three stories.
This is not the first accident in garment factories in Bangladesh. In 2005, a similar building collapsed in the same town killing 64 garments workers. The factory owner was arrested but did not serve any time in prison. Since then, there have been fires, stampedes and other incidents at various garment factories, causing hundreds of deaths. Most recently, more than 100 workers perished in a fire at Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia, a township close to Dhaka where hundreds of factories are located. In most of the incidents, the deaths were preventable. Often, workers could not escape because exits were locked. In theory workers can form unions to protect their rights in Bangladesh but according to Amy Kazmin writing in the Financial Times, “attempts to do so have been ruthlessly suppressed with any activist workers hounded out of their jobs, blacklisted or even worse, with government approval.
There has been a phenomenal growth in the garment industry in Bangladesh in recent years. Since the beginning of the industry in the 1980s, successive governments have promoted the industry because it is a major source of foreign exchange even though the wages for workers can be as low as $38 per month. It is now worth $20 billion annually.
Today, Bangladesh is the third largest exporter of clothes in the world after China and Italy. However, the industry has been plagued with building collapses, fires and other accidents, despite promises from the government to improve safety standards. Less than six months ago in November 2012, a fire in a clothes factory also in a suburb of Dhaka killed more than 112 workers.
Some of the businesses which were located in the collapsed building included Phantom Apparels Ltd, New Wave Style Ltd, New Wave Bottoms Ltd. All of these brands are part of the New Wave group which sells clothes to retail stores in 27 countries, which include Ireland, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain and the US.
The factories produced clothes for JC Penny, Cato Fashions, Benetton and Primark. On Saturday April 27th 2013, a group of protestors gathered outside Primark’s shop on Oxford Street in London and demanded that Primark pay compensation to those who died and those who were injured. Murry Worthy from the campaign War on Want said that “if Primark had taken its responsibility seriously, no one would have died.”
Sam Maher, a spokesperson for Labour Behind the Label, said: “It’s unbelievable that brands still refuse to sign a binding agreement with unions and labour groups to stop these unsafe working conditions from existing. Tragedy after tragedy shows that corporate-controlled monitoring has failed to protect workers’ lives.”
The ordinary consumer can also help bring about much needed changes in how goods are produced in economically poor countries. We should always check the brand we are wearing. Find out where it is it being made and support groups such as Labour Behind the Label, who are challenging governments to take responsibility by forcing corporations to pay both decent wages and create safe working conditions for their workers.
Pope Francis has made concern for the poor a central focus of his papacy. In his homily on May 1st 2013, Pope Francis has called for an end to “slave labor” conditions such as the ones experienced by the workers in a Bangladeshi garment factory that collapsed on April 24th 2013.
Serving the poor means, not just giving them help for today, but asking why are they poor? This tragedy in Dhaka is surely a call to young Catholics to join justice, peace and ecology groups in their parishes and dioceses and educate themselves about the unjust way some clothes makers treat humans and the earth. It might embolden young Catholics to challenge clothes shops on the High Street to enter into binding agreements with workers in the garment industry in poor countries, to ensure their rights are being protected and we never again see another factory collapsing. Political pressure as a result of a industrial disaster has been a catalyst for change in the past. The fire at the Triangle Shirt Waist in 1911killed 146 workers mainly women help spur the growth of the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. This union brought about real change in working conditions in garment factories. Hopefully, the Rana Plaza disaster will have a similar positive outcome.

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  1. Donal Dorr says:

    Thank you, Sean. Very clear, very practical.

  2. Mary O Vallely says:

    It isn’t just Primark and other cheap fashion brands which are at fault but the more expensive brands often use subcontractors where health and safety audits are not carried out. Fashion brands need to come together as one body as collective action is a must. The kite marks like Fair Trade used for food items could be one way of giving the public an option in making sure that what they are buying is ethically sound.
    There are so many moral issues connected to the fashion industry, not least of which is the exploitation of women, and women, of course, form the bulk of the factory workers. Attitudes to women and children in many cultures need to change.
    The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement’s deadline is 15th May and there are many petitions doing the rounds on the web which we can sign. It’s a small thing to do, I know, but a start. Thanks to Fr Sean McDonagh for raising awareness of this shame on all of us and thank goodness we have Pope Francis who will keep constantly reminding us of our duty to our planet sharers.

  3. It is easy to read this article and be horrified at the dreadful human tragedy that occurred in Bangladesh and then to quickly move on to other issues. I think awareness of the situation, the exploitation of the workers, could be incorporated into children’s education as early as primary school. The amount of money that is spent, indeed parents going into debt, on First Communions and Confirmations educates our children to think not in the direction of the message of Jesus but towards an attitude of greed and I want, I want, I want! The Bishops are curiously silent on this issue. The bishops at the moment are in the forefront campaigning to protect life, why are they not actively campaigning to protect the lives of workers in these slave factories to the same extent? Thank you for your article.

  4. Is there a reliable on-line source of information on the sourcing ethics of ALL the main retail chains? We can’t all check the veracity of the elaborate assurances that these chains will now all cook up. A quick check with my own default store tells me I could do with a reliable third party to confirm what they say.

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Please sign up for Avaaz petitions. Weekly, I’ll get an inbox with plea for support. Without having to search out the petition, it is brought to you. Avaaz has over 21 million members worldwide and their numbers are growing. Sadly, for the people of Bangladesh, this is just another welcome to the West that they are receiving. In the 70’s, an effort headed by the UN and the World Bank dug up to 10 million tube wells. Since then it has been found that 5 million of these wells were unsafe for drinking as they contain dangerous amounts of arsenic. The WHO has called it the largest mass poisoning of a population in history. Up to 77 million people have been poisoned over the years. Please support products from Bangladesh and certainly support the Avaaz petition and please take a moment and reach out to your local Bangladeshi communities. I urge you to continue to purchase products from this country as it is their main source of income right now and it allows many to survive

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