A year ago, the world woke up to the true cost of a $7 T-shirt when the Rana Plaza came crashing down in Bangladesh. Most of those killed were poorly paid garment workers toiling in dismal conditions. Cracks in the nine-storey building appeared in the days before the collapse, but they were ignored. Demand for cheap clothes eclipsed any concerns over safety: 1,138 people were killed and scores more maimed for life.
Many clothing companies faced pressure to pull out of Bangladesh, and some did, relocating their garment production to other countries where labour is cheap and safety standards virtually non-existent. Others chose to stay, committing to improving working conditions in garment factories and shed light into some of the darkest corners of the global supply chain of cheap clothes. In Bangladesh, where the garment sector employs over four million workers and exports more than $20-billion of goods, this is no small thing. Those companies, like Loblaw, who vowed to stay and to improve, don’t deserve to be condemned without a hearing. Bangladesh needs better jobs, not no jobs.
But looking at three measures of progress – wages, factory inspections and compensation – what’s striking is how little has been done. The Bangladeshi government moved to raise minimum wage for garment workers to about $66 (U.S.) a month. That’s a 77 per cent increase, but it still consigns Bangladeshi garment workers to the ranks of the lowest paid in the world.
Factory inspections are another example of slow progress. Two coalitions were formed in the wake of Rana Plaza to improve safety standards: the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Together they represent 176 companies and have conducted roughly 700 inspections. The vast majority of factories still fail to meet safety standards. But without greater co-ordination between investigating agencies, fixing these factories will prove elusive. Meanwhile “indirect sourcing,” or middlemen subcontracting garment workers to non-compliant plants, remains an enormous, unexamined grey zone. On the issue of compensation, efforts have fallen shockingly short. The Rana Plaza Donors Trust fund has raised just $15-million – well below its $40-million target.
A year after Rana Plaza, consumer demand for cheap clothing remains insatiable. And measures to ensure that the $7 T-shirt isn’t paid for in blood aren’t yet strong enough.