The factory collapse in Bangladesh is the latest in a long line of fatal incidents that have taken place in developing countries supplying the bulk of cheap clothes to consumers in the West. Over 350 people have died after an eight-storey factory building collapsed in a manufacturing complex just outside the capital Dhaka. 123 people died in a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in Bangladesh in November 2012, 289 died at a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan in September 2012, and 64 people died when the Spectrum factory collapsed in Bangladesh in 2005. There are countless other examples.
Most clothing companies and brands use factories in the developing world for the production of their garments, and several big names have been connected with these tragedies: C&A, Matalan, Primark, Benetton, Wal-Mart, Zara and Mango. Penneys, one of Ireland’s largest clothing retailers, has admitted that it used a supplier based in the collapsed factory. The company is a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, trading as Primark in the United Kingdom, and has been criticised previously over poor working conditions, low pay, unfair contract terms, and the suppression of trade union activity in the Bangladeshi factories where its clothes are made. Despite such abuses having been highlighted in recent years, it was reported that little changed in the Bangladeshi suppliers’ factories.
Clothes manufacturing is central to the economy in Bangladesh, employing millions of people in thousands of factories. 78% of exports from Bangladesh are garments, and 60% of those go to Europe. The authorities in Bangladesh have taken action since the factory collapse; according to one government minister: “Everyone involved – including the designer, engineer, and builders – will be arrested for putting up this defective building”. Bangladesh will take care not to cast the net of responsibility too wide, or to demand too much reform, for fear of losing business.
Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium has commented that “the real power lies with Western brands and retailers”. As to the prospects of improvements, he says that “[t]he price pressure these buyers put on factories undermines any prospect that factories will undertake the costly repairs and renovations that are necessary to make these buildings safe.” In response to the factory collapse Penneys released a statement, claiming that:
Penneys has been engaged for several years with NGOs and other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry’s approach to factory standards. Penneys will push for this review to also include building integrity.
This sounds as if something is being done, and Penneys claims to be an ethical trader, but mere engagement and company led initiatives are clearly insufficient. Clean Clothes Ireland have been pushing for a binding initiative, and as Kate Nolan puts it:
It’s unbelievable that brands still refuse to sign a binding agreement with unions and labour groups to stop these unsafe working conditions from existing. Tragedy after tragedy shows that corporate-controlled monitoring is completely inadequate.
Pressure from the home States of these companies is also needed. Business and human rights is often not a priority though, and has certainly not been given any real attention by the Irish Government. Last week it announced that it will start to consider how to go about preparing an implementation plan for United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights after the end of its EU presidency.
Consumer action might also play a role. Last week, I mentioned how a survey of public opinion on responsible business in Ireland found that 49% of those interviewed considered that the purchasing power of consumers could affect company behaviour. But 59% also claimed to have insufficient information regarding how companies behave. The deaths in Bangladesh have been headline news, and there have already been small protests in Dublin and at Primark’s flagship shop in London. Campaigners must contend with cash-strapped shoppers who might not avoid low-cost outlets like Penneys, even with this knowledge. It might even be claimed, with some justification, that it has become next to impossible to buy clothes not made in the developing world. But the price of cheap clothing has become far too high for such arguments to win the day.