Comment: This is what happens when your shirt costs £4.99

By Shailini Sheth Amin

If the horrific garment factory collapse last month in Bangladesh which killed 1,127 workers has any silver lining, it is the response from more than 30 of the world's leading apparel companies to sign an agreement to protect the safety and lives of members of the poorest and lowest wage-earning women's workforce who make these prestigious companies' products. This disaster is one of the world's worst industrial disasters, after the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India in 1984.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a historic advance over the voluntary private factory and to pay for repairs. Bangladesh is the world's second-biggest apparel-making country and the $20 billion industry, which relies on women workers, accounts for up to 80% of the country's exports.

The question is: why don't the people in the country themselves do something?

If the people of Bangladesh do not care about their workers and their safety, why would the outsourcers and buyers from other countries?

In Bangladesh's factories, a delicate financial balance may be wrecked by hasty 'solutions' to their troubles. Some factory owners may be in pursuit of a quick profit. But for many, the problem is not that they don't want to have gleaming, fully up-to-date factories or to pay the workers a living wage. Rather, it's that they don't have the resources. And they have to balance the costs against the risk that purchasers will turn to other, lower-cost countries. That would be a disaster for Bangladesh, where 20 million people depend on garment workers for financial support.  

These global brands thrive in a place where the average worker earns the equivalent of 24 cents an hour, according to the Worker Rights Consortium, a worker advocacy group that criticised US retailers. The wage for garment workers is much higher — sometimes four times that — which is why so many people are drawn to the industry. According to one workers' rights organization, it would cost about $3 billion, a sum that could translate to as much as 30 cents more per garment! The garment industry must understand that pointing a gun at manufacturers for charging lower and lower production rates at the expense of human rights is criminal – especially when the purpose is to cream the maximum profit off and to make the share holders rich!

Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo of the International Labour Organisation said recently: "Keeping costs low cannot be at the expense of people's lives and people's safety. This is not only a moral issue, but also an economic issue. Business will have to change." He warned against calls for boycotts that did not press for improved safety.  "That will mean business going down. And who will pay the price? The same three or four million women that are already suffering."

As for the moral argument, it seems hard to question. If a firm profits by choosing to produce its garments in a country where wages are kept low by cost-cutting that imperils the lives of workers, the firm bears some responsibility for bringing those conditions into line with the most basic of human rights standards. Almost all European firms that signed the accord have recognised this. The time has come for American industry leaders as well as companies from other countries to do the same.

Many textile workers in other countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka live with similar plight. Where production for local companies is undertaken, news of exploitation of the workers and disasters because of unsafe working condition become a small local news and due to 'local political pressures' and 'clout' of owners nothing much changes. Many international brands involved at Rana Plaza have made this disaster international news and has woken up the textile industry, the governments, workers unions and people everywhere.

The demand for more transparency in supply chains has grown in recent years with each allegation of poor working conditions at Apple's Foxconn supplier in China or at a Nike factory, says John Paluszek, senior counsel at marketing agency Ketchum and an expert in corporate social responsibility. The garment factory collapse in Bangladesh was a tipping point for many consumers. 

Since the Bangladesh factory disaster, many consumers are for the first time thinking about where their clothes come from and who makes them. Experts say American retailers can expect that backlash will continue for those companies who do not take committed actions.  Similar voices are growing in Australia, New Zealand and to the companies who have been indifferent so far.

Most of the victims at Rana Plaza collapse were women.  Imagine the number families that lost a mother, sister, daughter and wife who was also the main breadwinner!

In spite of that, as long as the poor and over populated countries like Bangladesh  think that 1,200 women are expendable, the garment trade is determined to show more and more profit to their share holders and people have a mindless greed for cheap garments and lots of them, more Rana Plazas or similar disaster will continue to happen.

Ethical and sustainable textile and garment makers and retailers must take the movement further. To follow the 'best practice' must become the way to do the 'best business'.  It is about time the clothing and garment industry embraces its right position – which lies much beyond 'fast and furious fashion' – the one that supports and nurtures.  Each purchase of garment should help towards restoring this lost balance.

Shailini Sheth Amin, founder and chief executive of MORALFIBRE, is an architect, a Community Project Initiator and a financial consultant. She has lived and worked in India and the UK. MORALFIBRE is an emerging brand that is successfully carving its niche in re-inventing, promoting and marketing  'almost carbon neutral', 'allergy free' and Fair Trade hand crafted textiles.

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