Dhaka collapse raises questions on where we get our clothes from

People rescue garment workers trapped under rubble at the Rana Plaza. Photo: Reuters

Eleanor Tighe is a PhD researcher at the School of Geography and Environment, University of Southampton. Her research looks at issues of regulation in the Bangladeshi garment industry. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.

With the sun now out it’s time to replenish our summer wardrobes. But while we are perusing our favourite fashion chains, do we ever really think where our clothes are made?

The Rana Plaza collapse once more highlights the dark side of the UK fashion industry where clothing retailers source from low price economies, further exasperated by falling spending on the high street.

Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothing, yet 43.25 per cent of the population still live below the $1.25 a day poverty line.

Locals gather as they watch a rescue operation of the collapsed Rana Plaza building. Credit: Reuters

Consumer demands for cheap fashion are traded against the rights of workers to decent and safe work places. Poor building regulation and disregard for workers safety has cost the life of hundreds of young women and men.

The Bangladesh Exporters and Manufacturer’s Association (BGMEA) and the industrial authorities announced Rana Plaza should have been closed on Tuesday morning, but pressure to meet the shipping deadline and poor regard for workers safety forced thousands back to work.

At 9am on Wednesday morning the factory collapsed. Around 300 workers reportedly died, but the real number is likely to be much higher. Many young women and men will be lost in the rubble, untraceable to their families outside the city.

All this makes me feel is a strong concern for the Bangladeshi garment industry, as fire after building collapse, after fire continues to be reported, how long can the industry be sustained?

With each new incident, pressures are placed on the retailers sourcing there, calls for advanced regulation, round table meetings, and new promises between retail, government and suppliers.

Yet while the industry appears aware of these dangers, the Rana collapse is evidence that these regulations are easily ignored.

People watch as rescue workers continue their operations. Credit: Reuters

Retailers sourcing internationally take advantage of distance and international competition to push down on pricing.

The messy nature of global sourcing and supply means garments get lost in the supply chain.

With no forced accountability, factories with poor building regulation slip through the net.

The ability to sell cheap clothes is dependent on the ability to maintain production in developing countries. Demand for disposable, seasonal fashion maintains business for factories unconcerned with the welfare of their staff.

Cheap clothes mean sourcing from countries with weak governments and poor systems of industrial regulation: poorly educated construction workers, weak industrial surveillance and poorly enforced labour law.

People gather in the shadow of the collapsed Rana Plaza building as the rescue effort continues. Credit: Reuters

If we do not demand to know where our clothes are made, and we are not prepared to pay the real price, then how can we be surprised when we see the reality in the media? We demand to know the conditions under which our food is produced, so why therefore not our clothes?

The sad part is retailers, respectable businesses and local NGOs working hard to improve the industry will be bought down as a result.

I worry that the progress made will be in vain. Retailers sourcing from Bangladesh must continue to have faith in the industry and work with their suppliers as equal business partners and not switch to the next, cheapest location.

Bangladeshi factory owners and the government need to realise that sweatshops are not acceptable. These factories must be closed down. If the government is not doing it, then the market must. No labour standards compliance must equal no business.

  • Many Thanks to Nazma Akter from the Awaj Foundation for the additional information.

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