Last Wednesday, an eight-story building collapsed in the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza complex mostly housed factories that made clothes for American and European companies.
As of Friday, the death toll has reached 307, but it is expected to rise considerably. About 3,000 people are believed to have been in the building when it collapsed shortly after the day’s work began.
Didn’t anyone notice a problem? Actually, yes.
Supervisors Ignored Cracks In The Walls
From The Guardian:
Dilara Begum, a garment worker who survived the accident, said workers had been ordered to leave after a crack appeared in the wall of the building on Tuesday but on Wednesday morning supervisors had told them to return to work, saying the building had been inspected and declared safe.
“We didn’t want to go in but the supervisors threatened to dock pay if we didn’t return to work,” she told the Guardian.
Mohammad Asaduzzaman, in charge of the area’s police station, said factory owners appeared to have ignored a warning not to allow their workers into the building after a crack was detected in the block on Tuesday.
Workers at a bank based in the same block were more fortunate: the management sent its staff home on Tuesday, when they examined those cracks and feared the worst.
The garment industry in Bangladesh is booming, but there have been plenty of other “accidents.” Five months ago a fire broke out in at Tazreen Fashions, a garment factory near Dhaka, killing 112 workers, who were unable to exit the building because the doors were locked. That fire brought pledges from government officials and many global companies to tighten safety standards.
It hasn’t happened yet.
Do You Own Clothes Made In Dhaka?
Chances are that you do, but you may not know it. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of ready-to-wear clothes in the world, trailing only China, and clothes make up 80% of their exports. The industry has grown rapidly in the past decade; as wages have risen in China, many global clothing companies have turned to Bangladesh, which has the lowest labor costs in the world. The minimum wage for garment workers is set at roughly $37 a month.
The New York Times reports:
Such low labor costs have attracted not just Walmart but almost every major global clothing company, including Sears, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and many others. Bangladesh now has more than 5,000 garment factories, employing more than 3.2 million workers, many of them women, and advocates credit the industry for lifting people out of poverty, even with such low wages.
Labor activists combed the wreckage on Wednesday afternoon and discovered labels and production records suggesting that the factories were producing garments for major European and American brands. Labels were discovered for the Spanish brand Mango, and for the low-cost British chain Primark.
Activists said the factories also had produced clothing for Walmart, the Dutch retailer C & A, Benetton and Cato Fashions, according to customs records, factory Web sites and documents discovered in the collapsed building.
So yes, you may well be wearing garments produced in Bangladesh.
Consumers have become more savvy about asking where our food and other products come from. We know about the USDA Organic Certified Foods label, the Fair Trade Certified label, as well as the Forest Stewardship Council Certified stamp of approval. In general, we can pay a bit more and feel assured that health, animal welfare and labor standards have been met.
But how much do we know about where our clothes come from, and how the supply chain works? Do we need a Fair Trade system for clothes? Or are we so desperate for a bargain that we choose to not speculate on the origin of our $10 dollar t-shirt?
The Guardian puts it well:
The Rana Plaza collapse is all the more distressing because it seems to have been avoidable. Consumers can’t prevent such tragedies. Governments and NGOs must apply pressure, both to the retailers responsible for the people who make their clothes, and to those in charge of regulating them. But until we can be more confident that workers’ lives are not being endangered, we must start to be more curious about where our clothes come from. Some of us are wearing clothes sewn by those killed this week in Dhaka.
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Photo Credit: Guardian online video