I’d like to make a confession. Today I’m wearing a Nike T-shirt.
It’s probably the second or third time I’ve worn it in 15 years. I know this because, about 15 years ago, I vowed never to buy anything with that instantly recognisable ‘swoosh’ again following the scandal over their south-east Asian sweatshops, and this T-shirt represents the final time I gave my hard-earned cash to a massively wealthy corporation which awards multi-billion dollar advertising contracts to already obscenely rich sports stars in exchange for their standing around as obliging clothes horses whenever required, yet pays a pittance to the modern-day slaves who make their goods. It’s a nice colour, a good fit and excellent quality. It probably cost £15 at most. I’d rather not dwell on how much the person who made it got paid.
I’ve only been in a Primark store once and the experience left me needing fresh air, a stiff drink and probably a cigarette as well, not that I’ve ever been a smoker. It had three floors (God, the escalators confused me), and each one was crammed full of waist-high tables stacked with clothes that had once been neatly folded yet now resembled a disorganised jumble of straggling sleeves and collars that had been twisted and turned so as to expose the sizing label. I doubt many bargain-hunters cared to look at where it was made. It was pretty much how I imagine Hell to look. People were struggling to squeeze through the narrow aisles, their stupidly-shaped baskets bulging and overflowing, bumping into other moving things; a dozen tills were beeping every other second and the lights were dazzling. Frankly, it was a scene of chaos and vulgarity and I swore I’d never return (I probably swore more than once about the people shopping there being inconsiderate and slovenly, too) because, first and foremost, the place made my head spin and nothing on the endless racks or unkempt tables was worth making me feel like I needed a cigarette.
Of lesser importance, I’m now ashamed to admit, was the fact that its clothes, like Nike’s, were produced in far-flung sweatshops by people working 20-hour days for pennies. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.
By buying them, I think it fair to say, you are supporting the sweatshops. I didn’t buy them any more, or so I thought, so I didn’t give them much thought. There’s that blissful ignorance again. I conveniently kept my Nike T-shirt hidden in the back of my wardrobe and only wore it around the house if I knew I’d not be seeing anyone that day or, more importantly, that they wouldn’t see me advertising this evil multi-national corporation and think me a hypocrite for so often preaching to them about the evils of Nestlé, Barclays or eggs from caged hens. It’s almost a dirty little secret.
The guilt of not wearing it, though, has also weighed heavily on my mind these last few weeks.
It’s now been almost a month since the catastrophic collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building in Savar, a commercial hub north of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Roughly 2,500 people were rescued from the rubble. Last week, the search for survivors was called off; 1,127 bodies had been recovered.
Several days earlier, another eight people were killed in a clothes factory, this time by fire raging through an even taller building in the Mirpur industrial district of Dhaka. The death toll might well have been much higher had the fire spread when the factory was operational rather than shut for the night. A fire in November at Ashulia, another suburb of Dhaka, claimed 112 lives. In fact, since 1990, more than 400 workers have died in 50 major factory fires in Bangladesh.
I didn’t think I had any clothing made in Bangladesh. But I do. The chances are, unless you are able to afford ethical-everything these days and check those labels carefully, so do you. From Benetton to Wrangler via Bon Marché, El Corte Ingles, J.C. Penney, Joe Fresh, Kik, Lee, Mango and Texman, Bangladesh plays its more-than-considerable part.
Its clothing industry accounts for a giant 80 per cent of the country’s exports. It is the world’s second-biggest exporter of clothing after China. Before Bangladesh, of course, it was Indonesia and Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan. Wherever there has been an abundance of cheap labour, corporations have been attracted like bees around a honey pot knowing they won’t have to pay out so much in wages or benefits and will get to keep more of the money for themselves. The same corporations are, naturally, to blame for unemployment in your town. But we all want cheap clothes, right? When wages are forced up by eventual union organisation and pressure for workers’ rights becomes unbearable, don’t worry; they’ll just move their factories somewhere else and find an even cheaper workforce so the clothes will still be cheap. It’s a win-win situation for the rich, as per usual.
(They’ll next move to Latin America and Africa, according to chief executive of H&M, the biggest buyer of clothes from Bangladesh.)
I can accept that a low wage is better than no wage at all, and that women (3.5 million of the 4.5 million employed in this industry are women) have greater opportunities to better themselves if they are earning an income. But £25 a month? $37 a month? That’s about as much as many people reading this spend on their mobile phone each month, I expect.
The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh earn slightly more than the minimum wage, which is set at 3,000 taka per month (approximately £25). 5,000 taka per month (approximately £45) is considered a living wage: the absolute minimum required to provide a family with food, shelter and, it is hoped, an education. Prior to December 2010 and rioting over low pay, they were earning just 1,662 taka per month (approximately £15).
As always, there are many other factors to consider here: the moral responsibility of assisting poorer parts of the world with their industrial revolutions weighed against the environmental cost, measured in air miles, of so much of our clothing coming from overseas, for example. Another is the demand for more and more cheap fashions to clothe a growing population in Europe and North America against the need to provide employment to a growing Third World population.
The effects of retailers following Disney’s lead and pulling out of Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest and most densely-populated countries, would be an altogether different kind of catastrophe. The manufacture of clothing makes up a fifth of the economy and four-fifths of its exports. There is growing unrest among workers.
Now that this haunting image has been shared a thousand times around the world, and its shock value diluted somewhat by other incredible international news events since, most obviously from Cleveland and Oklahoma, I wonder if your thoughts have changed at all since the Rana Plaza collapse. Is this another guilt-trip, designed to make consumers willing to pay a little more for peace of mind, just like with fair trade and organic food? I’m not convinced that the manufacturers who set the prices have no control over wages or working hours, labour abuses or safety standards. I think they’re taking us all for fools while the government of Bangladesh knowingly sends its citizens, like lambs to the slaughter, for the price of progress craved – as all governments have always done, let’s not forget.
There are more than four million garment workers in Bangladesh, most of them women. Less than one per cent are represented by a union. How very convenient for the manufacturers and factory owners.
The global union for textile workers, IndustriALL, claims that workers’ wages could be raised with almost no effect on prices. Doubling their wages for the roughly ten minutes it takes to make a basic T-shirt would increase its cost in the UK by just two pence. I should hope we could all gladly agree to paying such a tiny amount more if it meant doubling workers’ wages.
There are so many tragedies occurring all around the world, the latest being the sheer destruction wreaked across the American Midwest by some of the fiercest tornadoes ever recorded. How our hearts break for those who have lost everything they possess, everything they toiled for and took pride and comfort from. There goes the awesome might of Mother Nature taking it back once more, you might say, and there is little we can do to stand up to her. But we all share a moral responsibility for the tragedy in Dhaka and can do something to prevent another.
Isn’t it high time we stop placing our role as voracious, insatiable consumer above that of citizen sharing the one planet we are at this moment able to inhabit and take responsibility for the things we put into our shopping baskets as we march, robot-like, through our malls and supermarkets? We fund slavery. We fund apartheid. We encourage deforestation and vivisection and brutal oppression of our fellow citizens through our inexcusable ignorance and over-reliance on confected needs.
Bangladesh will now raise the minimum wage for garment workers, following protests from workers, international condemnation and, perhaps most significant of all, through fear of retailers taking their custom to places with claims to safer factories. Will we still buy their goods now that our consciences have been shaken?
By the way, Gap and Asda-Walmart – that’s Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, with some 2.1 million workers – have failed to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, as 40 other leading worldwide retailers have managed to do, to make more than 1,000 garment factories in Bangladesh safer. You might want to ask them why? Consider that, every second, 330 people buy something from one of Walmart’s 8,970 stores worldwide.
In the interest of fairness, I should point out that Nike has improved conditions for its workers since 1997 (and that rival Adidas has sweatshops of its own, so is not much better) and also that Primark has led the way by promising to pay compensation to the victims and their families, including the provision of long term financial support (whatever that means exactly).