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‘Shoppers share the blame’ for the deadly fires in Bangladesh




This will no doubt create uproar. Just as it did in September, when fire blazed through a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan, killing more than 300 workers.

The press always runs the same pictures after such disasters: ruined sewing machines, men digging with their bare hands to find the remains of a wife or daughter. Conditions in the factories are also always the same – blocked emergency exits, bars on the windows, fake security certificates, corrupt factory owners – as are the excuses given. But the real culprit is the pressure of our global economy.

Today, the pictures come from Bangladesh where this past weekend more than 112 people died in the Tazreen Fashion factory. The factory produces a million T-shirts, 800,000 polo shirts and 300,000 fleece jackets a month for customers such as Dutch retail chain C&A, French supermarket Carrefour, German textile discount chain Kik and Walmart.

The whole of Bangladesh mourned: Flags all over the country were at half-mast and people prayed in the temples. Politicians said what they say on such occasions. And then the grief turned to anger. Over the past few days, thousands of people have been protesting, throwing stones at factories, destroying cars, blocking streets. Hundreds of factories have been closed.

The mood is like the one that prevailed in the summer of 2010, when tens of thousands marched through the streets of the capital Dhaka demonstrating for better pay in the garment sector. Back then, they were fighting for a minimum salary of 5,000 Taka (less than $62 a month). They were tired of earning a mere third of that amount. They were tired of risking their lives for such a pittance. No one had talked about them for years, no one had read about them except for a tiny label sewed into countless T-shirts and pants, millions of summer dresses and winter sweaters: Made in Bangladesh.

Then, the mostly female workers had taken to the streets. There they were, with their sparkly earrings and bright saris, protesting for the first time. Factory directors complained about not being able to fill the orders placed by their western clients. There were casualties. People died. And then there was silence again.

Millions of people are employed in Bangladesh’s garment factories – the textile industry is one of the country’s major sectors. About 10% of European garment imports come from Bangladesh, which after China and Turkey is the third biggest clothing exporter to Europe. In a survey of buyers for the big fashion retailers, over three-fourths named Bangladesh as the strongest emerging country for garments. But at what cost?

The price of cheap labor

According to the Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign, since 2006 over 470 people have died in garment factory fires in Bangladesh. Today, the safety standards in these factories are as bad as they ever were. Electric cables hang – unprotected – from ceilings. Emergency exits (if there are any) are locked. Windows have bars. Fire drills? Unheard of.

For years, Gisela Burckhardt of the Clean Clothes Campaign has been fighting for better work conditions, pay, and safety measures in Bangladesh’s garment sector. She has made diagrams that show how the prices consumers pay divide up: 50% retail costs and profits; 25% advertising; 11% shipping and tax; 13% factory costs and 1% salaries.

Two years ago, she invited some women workers from Bangladesh to Germany. She wanted to give the exploitation a face, to show German consumers who was paying for their cheap clothing, to shame them.

In her shiny sari, Suma Sarker stood under the neon lights of a Kik clothing discount shop in Mannheim, Germany and ran her hand over children’s trousers with tiny pockets and zippers. She sews 60 to 70 such pockets per hour. Then she saw the price tag: 4.99 euros ($6.5). She couldn’t believe how cheap her labor was.

The women employed in Bangladesh’s garment factories are driven to work at a frenetic pace. They are also insulted, sexually abused, beaten. If they join a union, they risk losing their job. Burckhardt has seen it all before, how her phone doesn’t stop ringing after a disaster and how – in between disasters – she has trouble getting people to care.

One small ray of hope: German brand Tchibo and American clothing company PVH, which owns brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, have signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. But it can only be enforced if four big apparel companies sign on.

So far, clothing retailers H&M and Gap have refused. Burckhardt is hoping to get German cash and carry group Metro and discount supermarket Lidl on board: The Clean Clothes Campaign is urging both to sign but there has been no reply yet.

The problem is not the lack of a certification system. On the contrary: German companies alone have some 80 different options to choose from. What’s more, many companies have developed their own codes of conduct and compliance directives. But the work is parceled out to sub-contractors who sub-contract in turn – very few companies have any overview of their supply chain. The way the big companies weasel out of it, and have for years, makes Gisela Burckhardt furious. She wants it to be different this time.

But what’s likely to happen? Nothing.