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The industry's moral collapse

Satnam Shergill argues that further regulation is greatly needed in the aftermath of the Dhaka factory collapse

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Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes
Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes

The recent collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, has provoked international debate over the state of the global garment industry.

Factory disasters are unfortunately common in Bangladesh, which is home to nearly 4,500 textiles workshops, employing over 4 million people,with an average wage of $37 per month. Prior to Rana Plaza's collapse, there have been over 500 garment factory related deaths in the last decade in Bangladesh, this mainly due to the poor enforcement of health and safety legislation.Despite being in the spotlight over poor workers rights and poor building regulations Bangladesh is stil the world's second largest clothes exporter, behind China.

Since the incident, five clothing brands have already admitted to using the Rana Plaza production factory: Bon Marche, El Corte Ingles, Primark, Mango and Joe Fresh.

Following a week of mounting pressure and protest presence outside its flagship London store, Primark have announced that they will be paying compensation to those involved in the collapse. The event raises concerns about the moral obligations large apparel firms have, and should make the high-street shopper realise the true cost of buying cheap clothes.

To avoid such a tragedy occurring again, the changes in the industry must come from all stakeholders - with the government enforcing legislation, the suppliers, the global brands and the shoppers all following suit.Higher regulation in the garments industry is only going to increase the costs of production, which will inevitably be passed onto the consumer. But is asking a consumer to pay a few pounds more in such recessionary times feasible?

I think it is a small price to pay to safeguard the safety of factory workers.

Clothes manufacturers also face a dilemma, as increased costs in supply chains will only result in a loss of competitiveness to other firms operating elsewhere around the globe.Bangladesh's government and factory owners will also harbour these fears; if such legislation is pushed through, the resultant increased costs will reduce their competitive edge, leaving a large hole in the Bangladeshi economy.

This is why it is important to have such legislation put in universally, however this is far easier said than done.

Ineke Zeldenrust, from CleanClothesCampaign, an organisation that works to improve working conditions of workers rights in the global garment industry said that "brands can no longer justify any further delay in signing the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement." The agreement was prompted by the fire in the Tanzreen garment factory in Dhaka last November, which claimed the lives of over 100 people. Zeldenrust went on to suggest that the poor efforts shown by global brands to help clean up the garment industry border on "criminal negligence".

The owners of brands and producers in these garment factories must be aware that continuing in this vein is only putting their own businesses at risk; as more frailties are exposed consumers and brand owners will begin to distance themselves and move production elsewhere.

Do the large firms and consumers have a responsibility to question how their clothes are made and what conditions workers have to reside in? Or are high profits and low prices enough to distract us from what is happening in the garment industry?

A delicate balance must be found, guaranteeing Bangladesh's status as a leading exporter of garments, yet vastly improving the working conditions and building regulations to stop tragedies like these from occurring again.

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