Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Our textile industry died ... now they're dying in Bangladesh

Relatives of victims from the garment factory building collapse grieve at a morgue in Dhaka (AP)
Relatives of victims from the garment factory building collapse grieve at a morgue in Dhaka (AP)

The first job I ever had was a summer job in a linen factory near where I grew up. The work wasn't particularly onerous, the other workers were lovely; in fact the only downside I remember was the smell.

Linen and flax have an undeniably earthy, fibrous smell – and not necessarily in a good way. Once whiffed never forgotten.

Our factory made tablecloths and tea towels.

It was a last straggling survivor of the great Irish linen industry once famed across the globe. Linen was the jewel in our textile trade.

By the latter half of the last century however, demand for it had fallen and our textile industry was concentrating on shirt manufacture.

Shirts factories all over Northern Ireland provided thousands of jobs to a mainly female workforce. These were skilled workers. Justifiably proud of the standards they achieved.

But the shirt factories were wiped out by "outsourcing" to the east. To places like Morocco and China and India where garments could be made for a fraction of the cost.

Even the high-end quality retailers who used to get their shirts made here, greedily made that switch abroad.

People in those developing nations undoubtedly have benefited from the employment opportunities the contracts from the rich West now provides.

But at what cost to the workers?

This week's terrible, heart-tearing images from the factory in Bangladesh where hundreds have died is bleak evidence of what happens when profits are put before human life.

Western companies which use these factories (and Primark and Mango are far from being on their own) have a duty to demand that safety is regarded as paramount.

We may all have to pay a little more for that.

But even where labour is seen as cheap, life should never be.

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