After Rana Plaza
The details of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka a year ago have become familiar: the workers coerced into entering the structurally unsound building, the first tremors, the two minutes it took for the factory to fall to its foundations, the 17 days of searching for survivors in the rubble, the tally of 1138 bodies. Despite the photographs and the personal accounts, the event seems oddly distant and too readily memorialised in much of the recent coverage. In the UK, 24 April is Fashion Revolution Day: shoppers are encouraged to wear their clothes inside out to bring attention to the conditions in which they were produced. But the general popular response to the Rana Plaza disaster – aside from the dogged work of long-running campaigns such as Clean Clothes, Labour Behind the Label and Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops – has been limited and fragmentary.
Mango, Inditex, Matalan and Primark were all found to be using suppliers based in Rana Plaza. Primark has just announced a rise in profits so high that it has sparked concerns about unsustainable growth. The news suggests that what happened at Rana Plaza has had no real effect on shoppers over here, despite the rash of denunciatory editorials following the collapse. Inditex, based in Spain, saw sales grow by 5 per cent in 2013, mostly led by its flagship brand Zara. Mango’s profits rose by 9 per cent over the same period.
The industry certainly cares about the impact of public unease on their profit margins, but concerns about working conditions have been subsumed into talk about the transparency of the supply chain. The pressures on those chains, however, will only be alleviated by slowing the speed with which new clothes arrive in the shops. Primark, H&M, Zara and Mango now launch between 30 to 50 ‘seasons’ a year, both meeting and generating consumer demand.
An analyst at GT Nexus told Just Style that companies may be forced to look at ‘new sourcing locations’ to improve ‘proximity and speed’. He also warned that higher paid workers may use their smartphones and social media to communicate with ‘their brethren in other countries’, encouraging them to agitate for better conditions too.
In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, retailers made some impressive promises: protection of garment workers’ pay, publicly available safety inspection reports for factories, compulsory steering committees with up to three union representatives. But the fight for improved working conditions has to struggle against the cost-cutting exercises that largely benefit Western consumers. According to Reuters, retailers expect suppliers not to pass on the 79 per cent increase in the minimum wage (to £42 per month) in Bangladesh. Suppliers have said that they will push up productivity to make up for the lost profits, and that they may be forced to compromise on safety measures. Suppliers are reluctant to disclose the names of the retailers unwilling to pay higher prices.
It seems a huge consumer-led demand for transparency is the only way to get companies to keep their promises. A boycott wouldn’t help the workers, and there are anyway few ethical and affordable alternatives on the high street. The CEO of TAL Apparel told Just Style that public awareness of labour conditions will not be widespread – and potentially damaging – for at least another couple of years, but 'brands that do not embrace transparency today will find themselves playing a catch-up game.' Given the ongoing search for the next production base to meet rising consumer demand, Bangladesh’s garment workers are unlikely to benefit.