Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

What price now those tops and trainers for a laid-back Saturday?

Rescue workers carry a young victim's body after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Rescue workers carry a young victim's body after an eight-story building housing several garment factories collapsed in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Today as you read this column they are still bringing out the dead, 500 and counting, from the razed rubble near Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Later, we all may well don our sweats and trainers for a run in the park, or just be dressed-down casual to meet friends for coffee or maybe we just can't OMG decide which of those three-for-two tops bought at bargain-basement prices to wear for that date tonight.

Such sweating over sartorial matters in this age of cheap shopping doesn't write into the equation of the all-too-regular mass deaths in so-called modern garment factories which the Pope this week quite rightly called places of slave labour.

"Not paying a just [wage], not providing work, focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit. That goes against God!" Francis said.

Such devastating fires tend to be different from other catastrophic traumas in the slow-motion extremity of the victims' pain. For minutes, or even hours, workers' lungs fill up with smoke. For days, even a week, workers – women in the main: grandmothers, mothers, daughters – struggle to survive under the rubble until maybe someone digs them out.

And they are still doing just that this day as we deliberate over mixing 'n' matching our clothes – hell, I'm as guilty as the next in having far more clothes than any man could possibly need – painstakingly put together by women who live on a meagre, ofttimes short of, minimum 3,000 taka a month, all of a grand £27 and 67 pence to you and I.

In Bangladesh the rag trade brings in more than £13bn each year. Most of its source companies do not require, or indeed allow, independent monitoring of their factories. And, of course, herein lies the crux of this pitiful story.

The clothing brands that populate our high streets and ever-uglier shopping centres reiterate this week they are working to improve safety, but the size of the garment industry – some 4,000 factories in Bangladesh alone – means such efforts barely skim the surface. The issue is further muddied by subcontracting, where retailers can be unwittingly involved with slave-labour factories when their main suppliers farm out work to others to ensure orders are filled on time.

One way to begin to 'regulate' these factories and prevent these ongoing tragedies is already outlined in a proposal by Bangladeshi and international unions. The plan would ditch government inspections, infrequent and open to corruption, and establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories, with powers to shut down unsafe ones. Inspections would be funded by contributions from firms of up to £350,000 a year.

The proposal was presented at a meeting a year ago in Dhaka attended by the world's largest clothing brands and retailers – including Gap, Sweden's H&M and Wal-Mart – but was rejected by them because it would be legally binding and, well wouldn't you know it, too darn costly. This weekend such companies, Primark included, are anxiously oiling their PR machines to combat the fall-out should remnants of their garments be found among the ragged remains in Dhaka.

A factory in Bangladesh may well be managed on-site by someone who lives in the area, but the factory owners are typically in India, or Britain or South Korea. The money which the factory makes goes into the pockets of owners or shareholders in those countries, and funds local growth in Mumbai, or London, or Seoul.

It is disingenuous to suggest, as some bleeding liberal-minded hearts have done this week, that such sweatshops can fuel the same sort of growth factories that the West once did. On £27 and 67 pence a month, the economics just don't add up.

Inequality has reached such a lurid level that it requires almost an act of blatant blindness on the part of us, media and all, not to notice it. More than half of the world's population subsists on less than £1.20 a day, while the 200 richest individuals on earth own more wealth than 2.6 billion of the world's 7bn people.

Such an extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the few cannot be construed as a failure of global capitalism. Indeed, is it not a mark of its success, just what the system is designed to do?

The UK Department for International Development (DID) has just this last week or so axed funding to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), one of the oldest bodies in the world trying to improve working conditions for people like the impoverished 500 (and counting) whose tattered lives ended in a razed bargain-basement burnt-out shell.

Something to bear in mind when we finally decide which of our too-many tops and trainers to strut about in today.

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