The real price of cheap labour

On Saturday evening a fire ripped through a clothing factory near the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka, killing at least 117 people and sending workers jumping out of the nine-storey textile factory.According to the factories website, Tazreen produced for a host of well-known brand names from Europe and the US.  Campaigners claim Western firms making clothes in Bangladesh hide behind inadequate safety audits to help drive down costs.

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an Amsterdam-based textile rights group, says international brands have shown negligence in failing to address the safety issues highlighted by previous fires, and that this leaves them with responsibility for yet another tragic loss of life.

The big brands including the European clothing store C&A and the giant US retailer Walmart say they have been working with their Bangladeshi partners to improve standards. Around 700 garment workers have been killed in dozens of fires since 2006, according to CCC, but none of the owners has been prosecuted over previous blazes.

The Solidarity Centre reports that Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest clothes exporter with overseas garment sales topping $12 billion last year, or 80 percent of total national exports. Yet the base pay for a garment worker in Bangladesh is the equivalent of £23 a month—the same monthly amount it costs to buy food for one person.

There are no local unions at the Tazreen Fashion factory to represent workers and ensure safe worksites. Earlier this year, union activist Aminul Islam, a leader of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), a Solidarity Center partner, was tortured and murdered.

 Inhumane and illegal labour practices seem to be ever present in other industries also. Apple has recently faced scrutiny over conditions at China’s Foxconn factories.

Is it enough to feel bad and then simply forget about the workers who have died in Bangladesh this week? What can the British high-street do to ensure the disposable trends that we consume on a season-by-season basis are sourced ethically?

According to the First Research industry report on apparel manufacturing, this dependence upon large retailers is one of the key issues that affect the global garment industry. It may be that the largest retailers in the world can band together and insist on safer working conditions in the factories that supply their products so that they will not have to issue additional sad statements.

If we choose to stop buying the clothes from the brands involved what’s the knock on effect? In the long run if everyone stops buying cheap clothes from these brands, people will lose jobs, which will force them to find work elsewhere, which may have worse pay and conditions.

What is the answer?

Is it purely a vicious circle? Are we as consumers responsible for this or does the blame go to the brands?

I’d love to hear your views.

Written by Cara-Leigh Heasman


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