About the Bangladesh tragedy.

May 28, 2013

Sewing factoryYou see 'Made in China' engraved on almost everything in the West.  See-through rulers, quirky fridge magnets, little toy fire engines, the rubbish torches you buy in Poundland that break in your hand as soon as they're brought, most things that require making are made in China. People are accustomed to this.

But what you don’t see is 'Made in Bangladesh' scribbled inside the collar of cheaply imported clothing brands. Why? Probably because that one little sentence opens up some awkward realities about the state of the country’s labour demand that people are quite content to ignore.  

The BBC released a pretty good article recently highlighting the dark underworld of Bangladesh's textile and garment industries and the incessant demand for cheap clothing in countries like the U.K and France. 

Here are some nasty facts for you: Bangladesh's textile industry accounts for 45% of the country's employment yet only 5% of its GDP. The number of Bangladeshis forced to find work in clothing factories has increased from 500,000 in 1990 to over 4 million in 2012 and is still on the rise. The working conditions are the stereotype of a third world sweatshop. Cramped one roomed shacks act as living and working quarters where the phrase 'trade union' is pretty unheard of. In an underdeveloped conservative country there's not much other work going apart from farming at perpetual risk of flooding people have little choice where to work.

I complained bitterly to anyone who would listen a few summers ago about the drudgery of working in Morrison's for a few weeks for some uni money. But at the very least I could be sure that the roof of the fruit and veg section wasn’t about to fall on my head. On April 24th a factory called Rana Plaza in the Ashulia district of northern Dhaka collapsed crushing 1,100 workers.  Seriously though, it was the latest in a string of industrial accidents that were not unavoidable. In 2005 a similar building in the same area collapsed leaving 65 dead. In 2012 100 Bangladeshis died in a factory fire, again in Ashulia. Basically no one cares about the safety conditions and aren’t prepared to have them checked and maintained in an effort to drive down costs. It’s the workers that pay the ultimate price.  

But while the industry continues to earn steady increases in exports and provides employment for both men and women Bangladeshi officials are prepared to ignore, or even try to justify, human rights concerns. For factory owners it’s a problem of repairing their image to the West rather than tackling the source of the problem and improving conditions and pay. No wonder there are so many walk outs and protests. It's a mess.

Meanwhile European retailers are fully, fully aware about the awful working conditions in the developing world's sweatshops. We're in a better state than we were ten years ago but this problem is still in the dire straits.

I'm not advertising world peace. I'm not solving any problems fast by sitting here on my laptop sipping P.G Tips overlooking the garden.  I'm pretty sure I’ll never visit industrial northern Dhaka in my lifetime. But some retailers sell responsibly sourced clothing with a good ethos behind it and others don’t bother. We're all guilty of rummaging through some god forsaken high street clothing outlet that pretends to represent quality brands (that I probably shouldn’t name), shoulder barging the other vultures on a sweaty Saturday afternoon to get at the bargains. Still, Bangladesh is a big problem that you can do a tiny little bit about by not following the crowd. Independent stores are where it’s at: conscious-free shopping where you can stay ahead of the game and know your cash isn’t fuelling what's going on out there. Peace out.

James Fredrick Gray

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