Sunday, May 19, 2013

One miracle in Bangladesh is not enough

Let's celebrate the rescue of Reshma Akhter, but remember more than 1,000 have died to put cheap clothes on our backs

Reshma Akhter is carried from the wreckage with no broken bones. 


This post was first published on SubScribe on May 10, 2013

Great jubilation today over the rescue of a woman alive after 17 days in the rubble of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh.

Naturally tomorrow's papers will focus on this 'miracle'. Reshma Akhter, an 18-year-old seamstress, was pulled from what was once the  second floor of the factory building, apparently uninjured. She was well enough to describe how she had hit the wreckage with sticks and rocks to draw attention, but was beginning to despair. 'I never thought I'd see daylight again' will doubtless be the headline in more than a few places.

Just as I am doing here, papers will give second billing to the dreadful fact that the Dhaka death toll has gone up by a hundred every day this week and is well past a thousand. Nor should we forget that a further eight workers died in another factory fire yesterday.

The Rana Plaza disaster is now the world's deadliest industrial  catastrophe since the Bhopal gas leak in India killed nearly 4,000 people  in 1984.

The collapse of the eight-storey building has captured media attention from the first moments, even when the death toll was 'only' 87. The disclosure that workers had been ordered to their machines, even though the building had been declared unsafe because of cracks discovered the day before, made it an even greater outrage than two previous disasters that had, at that point, claimed more lives.

Journalists are used to dealing with high body counts in Asia. Industrial conditions do not by any stretch of the imagination meet Western standards. We are appalled by Chinese mining disasters and Indian rail tragedies, yet we are inured by their frequency - and by the comfort of knowing 'it's nothing to do with us'.

We might pause for a moment on bonfire night to think of the children who have lost  limbs in firework factory disasters - and then go and pour ourselves another glass or light the toddler's sparkler.

We were brought up short last year with the spate of suicides at the Foxconn factory in China; too many of us own Apple products not to realise this was rather too close to home to brush off. But do you remember how many people killed themselves and what the core problems were? No? It's too easy to forget.

Rana Plaza has made us think more carefully. It may be a five-minute burst of conscience, but something tells me this may be the moment that serious consideration of ethical shopping reaches  beyond the realms of the bearded sandal-wearing veggie hippies and into the mainstream.

Shoppers want to support ethical traders, but everyone in the fashion industry says it is too complex, that it is almost impossible to follow the manufacturing chain. How can you unravel the spider's web woven by the factories where the clothes are made, the shippers, the farmers who grow the cotton, the people who make the buttons? It's not like checking that pigs are being fed decent swill or that chickens aren't penned up in batteries. Or so I've been told.

Well maybe it isn't simple, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. We have to find a way first to convince high street retailers - and not just the specialist cottage industry businesses - to make the effort to get fully involved in monitoring their suppliers.

Yes it's hard to check up on factories thousands of miles away in countries where bribery and corruption rules, where certification can't be trusted and where codes and signals thwart independent inspectors.

It seems that when the musack changes, overseers don white coats and goggles and take over on the production line from the children being ushered out of the back door. If the lighting suddenly become brighter, office staff dig out one of several sets of 'official' papers so that they have the 'right' audit for the 'right' buyer.

If you are making millions of pounds from your sales, if your profits are soaring by 20% year on year, you need to invest some of that money into bringing a halt to such ruses and taking action yourself and not rely on middle men.

Associated British Foods, which seems able to monitor suppliers in its food business,  needs to get over to the sub-continent and start paying proper attention to the clothing side - Primark - that is the major source of  its growing profits. And so do other retailers. There's no good going in with a big stick and threatening to source shirts and jeans elsewhere. They need to negotiate, to help the factory owners to understand how everyone could and would benefit if they cleaned up their act.

And  they need to tell their customers what they are doing.

There's no use being coy. We are grown up enough to realise there's no instant solution, that conditions won't change overnight. There is a natural fear among brands that if they admit that they source goods from sweatshops or places where child labour is rife, they will be exposed on Panorama or by some intrepid print journalist and be ruined. So the media have to be responsible, too, and look for progress and what is good, not simply at wide-eyed children who make a good photograph - and who might starve if they were forbidden to work.

People in the West who care about the people who produce their food, clothes, toys, iPads must realise that boycotts will hurt only the workers at the bottom of the production line. That a little progress here and a bit more there is to be encouraged and not sniffed at as inadequate.

But the Government also needs to engage fully and bring pressure to bear on fellow governments, to offer incentives to drive out corruption. It's a tough task, especially when you consider that at least 10 per cent of Bangladesh's 300 MPs are factory owners and that many government officials also have a financial interest in an industry that is responsible for 80 per cent of the country's exports.

Dhaka clearly needs to put its own house in order and start by revamping the factory inspection regime. Human Rights Watch reported last year that there were just 18 government inspectors to keep tabs on more than 100,000 Dhaka factories.

Gameoldgirl has written  two articles on this subject  in the past couple of weeks (you can bet there will be more). The first concerned the circumstances of the disaster, workers' conditions and the predicament shoppers find themselves in when trying to buy ethically.

I know that the little red sewing machine idea seems simplistic. I know that setting up a regulatory authority can be complicated. I know that it's hard to be certain that every element in the supply chain is squeaky clean. But does that mean it's not worth trying? It was encouraging to find support for the little red sewing machine from the likes of Livia Firth and Luella Bartley, and if more big names in the fashion world were to join the campaign, we could make it fly.

The second post fleshed out the little red sewing machine idea.

There is an argument that such labelling wouldn't have prevented the tragedy last month because it would concern only working conditions and sourcing, and not the structure of the building. ABF has not (as I write)  signed up to a code of safety for buildings in spite of a petition signed by tens of thousands urging it to do so. The company says it is pursuing its own course of action. But if it wants customer support, it needs to be open and frank about its approach.

One know-nothing woman tapping away at a laptop can't save the world, but there are others out there who are thinking along similar lines. The pressure is growing and the issue is beginning to move out of the blogosphere and into mainstream media.

Events of the past two weeks may have created a momentum that will eventually require our high street chains to look to themselves and come up with real solutions rather than excuses.

There were people in the 19th century who said the world couldn't function without slaves. There were people in the 20th century who said apartheid in South Africa would never end. There were people in this century who never imagined you could have a computer the size of a paperback.

Given the evidence of humankind's ability to overcome hurdles and make huge social and technical strides when the will is there, how can we say today that there will never be a fully ethical fashion supply chain?

If you need convincing of the importance of this issue, look at the collection of pictures below taken since the disaster on April 24, and read this report from the Independent Europe Daily Express of a surviving factory worker's fears for the future.

Please back the campaign by spreading the word, putting forward ideas and tweeting using the hashtag #littleredsewingmachine. 

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