Apr 30, 2013

Is there blood on your T-shirt? Questions from Bangladesh’s tragedy

Hundreds of low-paid garment workers are dead after a factory collapse in Bangladesh. It's about time wealthy consumers in Western countries faced up to why their clothes are so cheap, argues Michele O'Neil, national secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia.

Just last week I was in Singapore at a meeting of unionists organising textile, clothing and footwear workers around the world. Safety in Bangladesh was high on our agenda and raised in nearly every issue and plan we discussed. The Bangladesh union leaders there spoke of workers’ fear, of the union not being able to enter workplaces, of long hours, pay too low to live on, of the horror of fires and not just the grief of death, but the life-long injuries and pain of those who survived. They described searching through the burnt remains of Bangladesh's Tazeen factory in November last year (where 112 workers died) for labels to prove which companies had been manufacturing there as all were denying responsibility. Two days after that meeting in Singapore, the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh. More than 380 workers are confirmed dead, the rescue effort has now stopped with 900 others missing -- presumed dead. Over 1000 are seriously injured. Many were making garments, some destined for export to Western countries. Do not be fooled by global brands' promises of investigation, statements of sorrow and concern and website statements of corporate social responsibility. This is not an isolated incident. Bangladesh is the most dangerous place on earth to work behind a sewing machine. Over the last decade more than 600 garment workers have lost their lives there, making fashion for the Western world. Another level to this tragedy has been the revelation that only the day before, local police ordered the building be evacuated as large cracks had opened up in columns on the upper floors. Bosses stood outside the plant the next morning assuring workers everything was OK and herding them inside. Facing a penalty of three days' docked pay for every day missed, most of the 3000 workers must have felt they had no choice but to file into the teetering death trap. In the days since the collapse, angry workers have taken to the streets of the city of Dhaka, stopped work, and blockaded freeways and the Garment Makers Association. The Bangladesh government responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. This industry is worth $20 billion to Bangladesh annually. The owner of the building who sent workers back into the building before it collapsed is a minor politician in the ruling party. He had approval to build only five of his building's eight storeys. There are 51 factory inspectors in a country with 5000 clothing factories, and many thousands of other factories.
"... why do we accept in 2013 that for the sake of fashion or a bargain we turn a blind eye to the truth of the labour behind the label?"
Companies are attempting to distance themselves from responsibility by no longer directly employing manufacturing workers or owning their own factories. They then seek absolution by saying "it's not our factory", "I'm not the employer", "it was an unauthorised subcontractor" or "how were we to know?" Shame -- it's your label, it's your product, it's your profit. Our union sometimes gets accused of forcing Australian jobs offshore because we fight for workers to receive a wage they can live on, have safety standards that protect their lives, and laws that require companies to disclose the details of their whole supply chain -- whether their clothes are being made in a factory or someone's home. Well, I'm OK with that -- it can't be a job at any price. Safe work with dignity is not too much to ask. The results of not having strong laws and unions is clear, look no further than Rana Plaza. Isn't the real question why we accept in 2013 that for the sake of fashion or a bargain we turn a blind eye to the truth of the labour behind the label? Companies that search the globe to find the lowest labour costs cannot claim ignorance to the consequences of that decision. The only way that Bangladesh factories can make clothes for the price they do is because they pay workers less than a living wage, compromise safety and punish union organising. Well, consumers have power. Some of the companies, shops and brands selling Bangladesh-made clothes here in Australia are Target, Big W, G-Star, Adidas, Duchamp, Cotton On and Kmart. Two of the brands known to manufacture in one of the five collapsed factories inside the Rana Plaza are Mango -- which David Jones recently announced a deal to stock -- and Benetton, sold throughout Australia in its own and other shops. Bangladesh is desperate to maintain and grow its garment industry. Global brands are desperate for you to buy and wear their labels. Workers and their families are desperate. Brand-specific codes, self-regulation and private sector audits don't work. If you want to support demands for the Bangladesh government to act, visit Labour start. Check the websites of your favourite brands -- if they don't fully disclose their supply chain and suppliers there's a reason. Demand they release the information. Name and shame those companies manufacturing in Bangladesh until they agree to be parties to the enforceable factory safety agreement that IndustriALL Global Union and Clean Clothes endorses. The workers will thank you.

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12 thoughts on “Is there blood on your T-shirt? Questions from Bangladesh’s tragedy

  1. zut alors

    The author makes several valid points.

    Unfortunately, the lure to buy t-shirts made in Bangladesh is not necessarily the price but the superior quality of their cotton fabrics.

    If Oz manufacturers selected better textiles for their clothing I’d have no need to look overseas. I suspect they use inferior material to offset the higher cost of Oz wages. There’s the dilemma.

  2. jmendelssohn

    What would help Michele, would be to publish a list of ethical clothing manufacturers. I don’t just mean companies that manufacture their labels in Australia, but worldwide.

  3. Lee Miller

    Now we will need to ask how many people have died to give me cheap clothing.

  4. klewso

    What I can’t understand is how this “illegal building” went up without anyone (in authority) noticing?

  5. Venise Alstergren

    Although I live in t-shirts I’ve yet to find one made in Bangladesh and apart from FDOTM t-shirts, made in America, all the others come from overseas. As ZUT points out, the ones from overseas have a far better cotton fabric; better seams and neck-bands, and longer lasting inks, than the local variety.

    How can anyone educate the buyer when traditionally Australians always buy by low price, rather than quality?

  6. redtrigger

    The first reaction from the Bangladeshi government was to say the building was illegal. Really?? Well why has the government not done something about it? What building codes exist in Bangladesh? What level of inspection and approvals exists? The response from the textile union is so predictable it is almost amusing. As always its the greedy manufacturers fault. It’s the consumers fault. It’s everyones fault it seems but the poor starving locals. How patronising. I suggest that Michele and Bono get together at the next TED conference for a little weep over it; and then condemn western nations for….well, everything.

    As a first world society with laws and standards we should be looking at the failed, corrupt government. A government very quick to point fingers at everyone except itself.

  7. Harry Rogers

    “in Singapore at a meeting of unionists”

    Sounds like an oxymoron.

  8. Tuckerman Clare

    @jmendelssohn: Just google it. But to save you time:

  9. supermundane

    What has occurred in Bangladesh is a manifestation of real class warfare.

    Class warfare in that the appalling wages and conditions these clothing companies can get away with in states like Bangladesh constitute a direct attack on the hard-won rights and conditions of all working people in Australia. Class warfare in that working people in Australia and other western states have a responsibility to see that all workers worldwide are treated with dignity and receive just and fair renumeration for a day’s work, recognising that it’s in the interests of the owners of capital for workers globally to be competing with each other in a race to the bottom.
    And it’s class warfare when we realise that in the main if the owners of capital could get away with it such wages and conditions here, they would.

  10. klewso

    “What’s a few lives : profits?”?

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