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A year on from the collapse of the Rana Plaza building which claimed more than 1,100 lives, has the world since changed for garment workers

In the wake of the worst ever disaster in the global clothing industry there was inevitably much soul-searching. Should blame be directed firmly against the Bangladeshi government for failing to implement basic safety standards in its factories? Was it the fault of factory owners for failing to observe international conventions on safety and worker rights? To what extent were Western brands to blame for sourcing their clothes in the cheapest possible country and placing such demands on factories? And how much were we as consumers willing to pay low prices for our clothing to blame?

What is clear is that collective action was required to prevent another calamity. That said, the Rana tragedy was only the latest in a string of accidents in the Bangladeshi clothing industry, with estimates that a similar number of people to those killed at Rana have actually died in other accidents in recent years. In this anniversary month of the Rana Plaza tragedy, the question is, has that collective action taken place?

Is actually buying garments from Bangladesh is a good thing, and what attracts Western companies to source goods from the country? What are the challenges of being a garment factory owner in Bangladesh at the current state of play of workers’ organisations and trade unions in the country?

The minimum wage in Bangladesh has increased by 80%, a move which the government had been planning for some years but which was finally enacted in the wake of Rana. However given that the cost of living has continued to rise in the country and workers struggle to live on low real wages, does this go far enough?

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  • May 19 2014: I would like to see companies based in america held to American standards of labor rights and environmental protection, no matter where they do business. It would still be profitable for companies to outsource, because a living wage in somewhere like bangladesh is much lower than america, and the country amd citizens that the work is outsourced to would be given a chance to live a healthy and constructive life.
  • May 22 2014: The keywords are 'international' and 'capitalism' for this issue. Capitalism will exploit the workers wherever it can, with safety taking a much lower priority than profits. International implies that when one group learns a lesson then others will fall in line with the lessons learned, but how do you enforce that across national boundries? The lesson learned in the US came from a tragedy that happened before: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire

    So you can change the rules in your own country, but any 'global' solution is impossible. That's the beef that I have with Global Warming proponents: how will you get China to agree not to pollute? War? How do you stop slavery? More War? How do you fight drug abuse when one country produces and another consumes? Unending War on Drugs?

    What will happen in countries like Bangladesh and China is that the rising incomes and regulations will push the Capitalists to move operations to another country where they can get cheaper wages and no regulations. And more people will continue to die in fires and building collapses in the next-poorest country as a result.

    I do not see a solution while Unbridled Capitalism is the best economic model we have. We have to put a Bridle the powerful horse that is Captialism with moral laws...but Capitalists will always be attempting to subvert those laws as they cut into Profit. All we can do now is chase the rats from our own homes, and when they infest our neighbors house they are no longer our problem.

    Congratulations on Bangladesh improving their workers lives. 20 years from now, when there is no longer a garment industry in Bangladesh, know that those jobs moved somewhere that has not learned your hard lesson, nor will they until their own people die in yet another building collapse.
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    May 27 2014: It seems getting a "bargain" has long been more important than those exploited along the way to that bargain. Western culture has been so indoctrinated with the theology of consumption that we line up for "specials" and will trample each other to get to the "sales bin". All the while remaining blatantly ignorant of the fact that nothing is sold at a discounted price unless there was something wrong with the product or it "fell off the back of a truck". Didn't Bush tell everyone that their duty was to consume?

    The truly ironic aspect is how the consumers who flock to those "low prices" are also the workers whose wages have been stagnated if not reduced to subsistence levels while the jobs they depend upon for the money to facilitate that consumption are being shipped to Western cultures latest colonial conquests. All In order to subsidize "lowered prices" but more importantly, obscene profits. .

    I guess it is true that we really do " get what we pay for".
  • May 26 2014: Emma

    A very tragic event. A smaller, but similar tragedy took place in New York in the early 1900's, the Triangle fire. Less then 200 died, but the fall out was significant. The cause of the fire here was probably (?) a cigarette thrown into waste. What I fail to understand in your opening statement is why you are looking to possibly blame consumers. Was there a determination on the cause?
    As in the Triangle fire people went to the streets with over 20,000 strong and they received their justice. They stood up for themselves. Has this happened in Rana? The soul searching in this tragedy starts with the strength of the people there.
  • May 22 2014: A lot of questions there Emma! But a very important issue.

    In terms of who is to blame, I find it impossible to lay it squarely at the door of any one of the stakeholders you mention; ultimately everyone from the factory owner to the eventual consumer played a part. But I think the big takeaway from this disaster is the need for responsibility and accountability in the supply chains of Western brands. And not just in the garment industry; far too many of our popular products are produced in an environment that would not be tolerated in our countries.

    By all means trade with developing countries is a good thing and should be encouraged, but not in these one-sided, exploitative terms that give workers nothing more than a subsistence lifestyle. The injustice and irony of the horrendous conditions the workers must endure to give consumers in the developed world a better price is abhorrent; 'The Hunger Games' springs to mind.

    Ultimately I feel it is the importers' governments that must take action on this issue. Consumer outrage, product labelling and voluntary codes of conduct can only go so far; as long as poor working conditions in the producing country can lead to lower prices for consumers, there will always be a demand for these products. I feel governments must legislate to set minimum standards for supply chains. I agree with Jacob below that (at least larger) companies could be required to prove that goods have been produced in a way that complies with worker/eco standards in the country where the goods will be sold. Otherwise the message being sent out is 'Those conditions aren't good enough for our citizens, go source your goods from somewhere the protections are weaker'.

    This might interest you: http://www.cleanclothes.org/livingwage/tailoredwages/tailored-wage-report-pdf
  • May 20 2014: Probably not so buy American "made" products.