Photo courtesy of the Guardian
I can hardly bring myself to watch the television pictures of the devastated Rana Plaza building in Savar, a suburb of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Several thousand people were buried alive when it collapsed and the rescue services are unable to cope. At least 3,000 people were believed to have been in the building at the time.
The deadly incident has already been called the worst industrial accident in the country's history and it serves as a reminder that nothing has changed when it comes to the inhumane conditions under which clothes are made in Bangladesh for European and American tactile companies and clothing chains.
Nothing has changed about the culture of corruption that is rampant there either; the abundance of illegally procured construction permits and the lax attitudes factory owners take towards safety standards. There were five garment factories in the building as well as the offices of Brac Bank. The bank manager decided to close the bank on Wednesday because of the severity of the cracks in the walls and his actions saved his 11 employees' lives.
Factories in Bangladesh have been under enormous pressure for weeks from their foreign customers because, until recently, strikes and protests had been disrupting much of the public sector. Trucks loaded with goods destined for Europe and the US were stuck at the port of Chittagong and many buyers started avoiding Bangladesh altogether. Tesco publicly considered shifting production to Turkey or even Africa. All this contributed to manufacturers being desperate to make up for lost time.
Some of the clothes made in the five factories were produced for the German market, but they also supplied the Irish-based Primark.
How often have we heard companies like Primark say that their suppliers are held to a code of conduct: 'A safe and hygienic working environment shall be provided. Adequate steps shall be taken to prevent accidents..' (taken from their website). Most of us know these codes aren't worth the paper they're written on but we still buy their clothing. I've bought from Primark in the past but found the quality was extremely poor. I like a jumper to be wearable after more than one wash.
It was competition from the likes of India and Pakistan which decimated our clothing industry. Price is the bottom line for buyers and it doesn't concern them one bit and of course price has overtaken quality in our now throw-away society.
Some months ago Mary Portas fronted a television programme which involved selecting and training young people in the art of machine sewing. Combined with the novelty effect and superb marketing she successfully sold her knickers to top stores. The knickers weren't cheap - £10 a pair if I recall - but people bought them because her advertising slogan was 'They're British Made'.
If the authorities in places such as India and Pakistan refuse to get their act together regarding safety for their people, then surely it's time for UK buyers to consider manufacturing again in this country.
If the clothing industry can only be improved if it pays decent wages and introduces a new kind of regulation involving independent, unannounced inspections of factories funded jointly by supplier, contractors and trade unions. If buyers were made responsible for human rights abuses in their supply chain, it wouldn't take them long to come to their senses and who knows, they may even decide to return some manufacturing to their home countries.
Savar may be the worst incident in history but it's by no means unique. In 2005 the town's Spectrum Sweater building collapsed, killing 64 people. That building too had illegally been raised from four floors to nine.
The buyers must take some responsibility towards using such suppliers and aiding murder in the name of profit.
Note: Since writing this post Bangladesh's first internet newspaper has reported that 'UK's Primark to pay Savar victims'. Too little too late?