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Why the problem of Bangladesh isn't solved yet

Rana Plaza collapse

The Rana Plaza factory collapsed on 24 April 2013. Jaber Al Nahain under a Creative Commons Licence

It is now six months since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where over 1,100 people died, and the garment industry is still scrabbling to pick up the pieces. Over 100 companies have now signed up to an agreement on monitoring factory fire and building safety in Bangladesh, and international efforts are being made to sort out compensation for the workers.

But will this mean that all is well with global trade again? Can we all go back to buying cheap clothes without guilt, telling ourselves that low-paid jobs are good for their economy and fast fashion good for ours?

Let us go back to six months ago and revisit the scene of the building collapse. A few days before the collapse a crack appeared in the side of the Rana Plaza building – workers from all the businesses in the eight-storey building were sent home while the building was surveyed. The owner of the building was told by experts that there was a serious issue, yet workers from the garment factories were commanded to return to work the next day. This the garment workers did (and workers from the bank on the ground floor did not); then, during the morning rush, disaster struck.

Why the garment workers returned on the morning of the collapse is the essential point of this story. The reason is economic. The minimum wage for a factory worker in Bangladesh is currently $38.69 a month – a pittance. Women and men working in the Rana Plaza clothing factories couldn’t afford to miss a day’s work and risk losing a month’s salary. They were forced to choose between their own safety and being able to feed their families.

Even after working huge amounts of overtime, paid at a slightly better rate, these women and men live in slum conditions and struggle to feed their families. A living wage sufficient to allow a family to live in dignity is more like $356 a month1 – over eight times the minimum wage. This sum demonstrates that the economic freedom which global capitalism preaches is a pie-in-the-sky dream.

Living on the breadline also means that the survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster have gone from being family breadwinners to family burden overnight. With no job, and suffering injuries that may prevent them from ever returning to work, they are no longer able to support themselves or their families and many already have been evicted from their homes.

Economic freedom is at the root of the puzzle of how to fix the garment industry. A workforce that is able to refuse work that is unsafe, to save and improve their lot, to mobilize and demand better conditions, is a free workforce and one that is an asset to the economies they live in. Instead, global capitalism has the workers of Bangladesh (and Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia....) under the thumb. As global buyers seek ever lower prices, wages and conditions get squeezed. Workers aren’t free – they are economic prisoners kept down by an industry where the money flows ever upwards. The way to fix this isn’t greater top-down auditing, but genuinely empowering the people who work in these factories to be agents of change. Which starts with pay.

So why is no-one talking about this? Over 100 companies have now signed up to the Bangladesh Accord in an effort to make garment factories safe – such agreements are possible. Yet, as soon as campaigners mention wages above the minimum and cost per unit going up, deathly silence falls.

For too long companies have hidden behind easy corporate social responsibility initiatives such as recycled paper bags. Living wages are the central piece of the solution. An accord on wages? Long overdue.

1 This living wage figure was calculated by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, based on 2013 estimates. http://www.cleanclothes.org/livingwage/calculating-a-living-wage

Labour Behind the Label works to improve conditions and empower workers  in the global garment industry. They are the UK platform of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a coalition of campaigns in 15 European countries with a network of 250 organizations worldwide.

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