The Real Tragedy of Bangladesh
As I write, the official death toll from the collapsed Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh has hit 380, hundreds remain unaccounted for, and the eponymous Mr Rana has been nicked by the police trying to flee the country.
Who is responsible for this tragedy? Mr Rana and his fellow factory owners? The Bangladeshi authorities? The big brands who use such suppliers? Western consumers who think a £2 T-shirt doesn’t come at a bigger price? Global capitalism?
That debate will run and run – and to me it’s an impossible question to answer except “all of the above.” The more pertinent question is “who’s going to step up and fix it?”
Inevitably some journo/polemicist was going to play the contrarian card – step forward Alex Massie of the Spectator who has been declaring that while such sweatshops are awful, they’re better than the alternative – hardscrabble subsistence farming. While that is indeed true, it’s a false choice – a moral-cop out to justify the status quo. This is the real tragedy of the Bangladesh disaster – that so many people think such events are somehow inevitable.
There’s a clear third option – decent working conditions for all.
The inevitability position is blown out of the water by the brands who have “fixed” such problems in their own supply chains. 15 years ago, Nike was a dirty word amongst the international social justice movement, but it has driven standards down through its supply chain (although some concerns remain). Marks & Spencer sponsored a low-carbon, high quality lingerie factory in Sri Lanka. Apple has been shining a torch into the darkest corners of its supply chain – and publicising what it found there.
These brands know that investing time, effort and money into their supply chains creates a win-win-win-win for the consumer, the brand, the supplier and the worker. So we can either do that and everyone’s happy or we could all just shrug our shoulders and say “Que sera, sera” – and that would be a real tragedy.