BY KATE NICHOLL
April 24 marks the three year anniversary of one of the worst industrial disasters in the world. In 2013, a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed killing 1100 people. The factory was one of many in Bangladesh’s large apparel manufacturing industry, producing clothes exclusively for consumption in the west. I went there in January, as a supply chain consultant, I wanted to see for myself the truth about the worst of what can happen in sourcing our materials across a complex – and often exploitative - supply chain.
The event highlighted two key issues regarding treatment of workers – firstly the lack of safety procedures in the industry locally, and secondly the oppressive conditions that they work within.
By many accounts, the signs of building decay was clearly evident in the days leading up to the collapse with sizeable cracks in the walls. On the morning of the collapse, workers were reticent to enter the factory, however they were threatened with being fired or not being paid so they relented. Once they were in the building, they were locked in.
The world was horrified as new spread across the world. In response, The Bangladesh Accord was signed by large manufacturers in the region. This was a legally binding document, with the intent to ensure that fire and safety procedures are implemented in Bangladesh to protect workers from this happening again.
As a consumer of Bangladeshi made clothes, it is sobering to stand at the site where the factory collapsed. Now there is just an empty space with a shallow pond where family members are cultivating fish in memory of their loved ones.
There is still more work to be done
The Solidarity Project is an organisation formed in Bangladesh to support organised worker rights through trade unions. I spoke to Kalpona Akter, a project manager within the centre. She is passionate that the Bangladesh Accord is an improvement but still does not address the other major issue facing workers – desperately low wages. Currently the minimum wage is 5000 taka or approximately $65 USD per month. Kalpona argues that this is not a living wage, which should account for the local costs of: number of calories needed to carry out the work; housing; healthcare and education. The centre calculates that the current minimum wage is little more than half of what an actual living wage would be.
Although when the building collapsed it sent shock waves across the world, we quickly forget and move on. But it is still tender in Bangladesh, and still a lot of work to be done to ensure that this will not happen again. The answer is not in boycotting clothes made in Bangladesh, the answer is in campaigning our brands to pay adequate prices to factories that gives them the ability to create fairer working conditions. Bangladeshi garment workers want to make these clothes for us, but it is time for them to do it with dignity.