Following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory that killed 1,129 people last April, the world united in solidarity to help the victims, prevent future incidents and improve the working conditions of Bangladesh’s garment workers. The story was front page news across the globe. The fashion industry quickly rallied and drew up an accord committed to the goal of a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi garment industry. Politicians declared it a ‘terrible and avoidable catastrophe’ and consumers vowed to shop more ethically and avoid the fast fashion retailers known to use the offending factories. Even the Pope got involved declaring it ‘against God’. But as time goes by, people forget. How many politicians mention the subject now it’s out of the media spotlight? How many fashion retailers actually signed up to the accord? And in an unstable economy, how many of us have given much thought to the origin of that steal of a jumper on sale in H&M?
The airing of Panorama’s ‘Dying For A Bargain’ tonight on BBC served as a stark reminder to us all that although it is not front page news, the human rights abuse and inhumane working conditions are still a very real fact of life for many in the Bangladeshi garment industry. For those of you that missed the programme, Panorama secretly filmed workers making clothes for supermarket giant Lidl with their hours starting at 7am and ending at 2.30am. That’s a nineteen and a half hour day for just £2. Even more disturbing, a guard is filmed locking the gates of the factory at 1.15am. Had there been a fire, there was no escape. The workers would have perished.
The documentary also highlighted another truth – it’s all too easy to blame the Western clothing companies that employ these factories to manufacture the clothes. When Richard Bilton visited the factory as an undercover buyer from a fake British clothing company, he was assured that the factory closed at 17:30. He was also told that the gates were never locked. Factory owners keep double books making it very difficult for clothing companies to monitor what really goes on behind closed doors. In a country were corruption and bribery are rife, it’s all too easy to fake audits. But then again, it’s all too easy to pass the buck. Many of these retailers are multi-billion pound companies. If they really wanted to enforce safe and fair working practices in their factories, they surely could? Can’t they put trusted workers on the ground to monitor compliance with health and safety regulations? Can’t they enforce regular unannounced audits? Are retailers taking this seriously or are they more concerned about the bottom line and the bad press and PR nightmare that the collapse of Rana Plaza and documentaries like this cause?
Bangladesh is the second biggest exporter of clothes in the world and its £13billion textiles industry provides money and jobs for millions of workers. Pulling out of the country would cripple a nation so heavily reliant on its garment exports which account for a staggering 80% of total exports. The documentary also stressed that the majority of factories are safe and modern. We don’t have the answer but we do hope that the airing of Dying For A Bargain will remind people to continue to search for one. Don’t let the retailers get complacent, don’t let the politicians forget their promises and think before you buy. There is a reason the clothes are cheap – someone else is paying the price, often with their lives…