On May 10th the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which produced clothes for Primark, H&M and Gap, collapsed in flames, killing 1,127 of its workers.
This has triggered worldwide concern as to the standard of health and safety being kept to supply popular clothing brands as cheaply as possible.
There is increasing pressure against chain stores such as Benetton and Zara, who source their clothing from the Bangladeshi factory, to move towards safer working conditions for the people who work in these ‘sweatshops’. By signing the binding Fire and Building Safety Agreement, the clothing companies make a promise to protect the garment workers by ensuring that all safety standards that are expected are kept. H&M were one of the first to sign the agreement, as other chains followed in their path to show their support for better working conditions.
But why is it that only now there is a public appeal for the improved working conditions of ‘sweatshop’ owners? It is open knowledge that companies source for cheap labour in order to provide the requirement of fast-fashion in modern day culture; the need to have the latest trends and the best bargains is a mantra that many shoppers live by. Yet we continue to buy clothing that is sourced this way. Why?
Many people argue that ‘sweatshops’ should be shut down permanently. When we try to envisage what the working conditions of a ‘sweatshop’ is, we imagine tight working spaces, heavy and humid air with minimal lighting and a worryingly increasing amount of child workers, which in Bangladesh is 30,000 children and increasing every day. The average age for child workers is 13.
Despite this, we have to consider what the effects of closing down ‘sweatshops’ could be for the workers themselves. Despite all the pros for shutting them down, we have to consider that if we take away the option of working in a garment factory, we reduce the worker’s available choice from a selection that is already limited. They have chosen to work there over jobs which may offer worse conditions. If we choose to no longer purchase from stores that contract these factories, or if they chose to produce their clothing in their own countries, we reduce the need for ‘sweatshops’ and therefore the need for workers who rely on them for a livelihood.
Perhaps it is just a case of focusing on more foreign investment into the garment factories so that they the working conditions are better quality and remain at a high enough standard so that we prevent further tragedies such as the Rana Plaza fire from happening. As Rep. George Miller, the senior Democratic member of the House of Education and Workforce Committee, stresses, “if they fail to sign an enforceable agreement, they are declaring that they accept blood on their labels”, an image no one wants to face.
Article: Charlotte Cole
Photography: flickr – RehmanAsad, blogs.ft.com