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Bangladesh's deadly building collapse: Are cheap clothes to blame?
This tragedy is just the latest in a series of terrible accidents in poor countries supplying the world with bargains
A piece of clothing with the label still intact lies in the rubble of a building that collapsed on April 24.
A piece of clothing with the label still intact lies in the rubble of a building that collapsed on April 24. AP Photo/A.M. Ahad
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he owner of an eight-story building in Bangladesh that collapsed last week, killing nearly 400 people, was led into court on Monday wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, as angry protesters and lawyers shouted, "Hang him!" The building owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is one of eight people to have been arrested — the others are Rana's father, two engineers, and the bosses of four factories that operated in the same complex. Labor activists in Bangladesh and around the world, however, say many, many other people share some of the blame.

Factories that were housed in the fallen building made inexpensive clothing for foreign retailers, including the Canadian Joe Fresh brand sold at JC Penney, and jeans bearing the label of British budget retailer Primark. Activists say foreign companies — and their Western customers — bear some of the responsibility for this tragedy. After all, their demand for cheaper and cheaper clothes encourages producers in countries like Bangladesh — the second biggest clothing exporter after China — to cut corners and make workers toil for low wages in unsafe conditions.

Such criticism isn't exactly new. A fire at another Bangladeshi factory in November killed at least 120 workers — some of them reportedly working overtime making clothes for retailers such as Walmart and Target — and prompted days of protests calling for better conditions. The scale of the latest disaster, however, is magnifying the anger like never before. "The disaster in Bangladesh was first and foremost the fault of the building's owner," says Britain's Financial Times in an editorial. He is a local politician and reportedly "used his influence to circumvent building regulations" and expand his stack of factories. But his tenants can't escape their share of the blame.

The world's big retailers, most of which have flocked to profit from Bangladesh's low wages and poor working conditions, share responsibility for operating in a country where such abuse is rife. It is no longer enough to claim that occasional factory inspections and contracts bristling with conditions entitle a retailer to the title of ethical trader... The reality on the ground is that all the inspection procedures in the world are pointless if laws are flouted. [Financial Times]

The first reaction of many outraged consumers in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and elsewhere is to boycott brands that use these factories. That's not the most effective response, however, according to Stephanie Nolen at the Toronto Globe and Mail. "Yes, Bangladesh's garment industry is ridden with appalling labor practices." The fire in November, which "left charred piles of young women's bodies heaped at the fire exits — which were locked — reminded us of that." But our cheap clothes have created opportunities for Bangladeshis, fueling "a social and economic revolution" they hope will continue, so boycotting might hurt the very people we want to help.

But you can call Joe Fresh today and demand that they audit their producers for safety and for working conditions. You can demand to know what their producers' relations are with Bangladesh's struggling labor unions. You can tell Joe Fresh that if they are going after your business, they need to have a direct relationship with a supplier — not outsource to a third party so they get plausible deniability. [Globe and Mail]

Will there ever be enough pressure, though, to really make a difference? Nivedita Bhattacharjee and Jessica Wohl at Reuters doubt it. "Bangladesh is hardly the only source of inexpensive clothes and cheap labor that has sparked concern about labor conditions," they write. "From Vietnam, to the American protectorate of Saipan, to the massive workshops in China, Western companies have found themselves entangled with places where worker health and safety conditions are often questioned." But disasters like last year's factory fire or this month's building collapse "have not changed the calculation for apparel makers and retailers. Cheaper products appeal to shoppers. And the taint, if any, appears to be manageable," judging by the continuing ring of the cash registers.

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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