It’s been five months since a fire at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in Bangladesh killed more than a hundred people. Last week, an eight-storey garment factory complex in a suburb of Dhaka collapsed, leaving nearly 400 people dead. While heavy cranes are now lifting huge concrete blocks from the wreckage, and building owners and factory bosses are facing charges, I would like you to open your closet.
As you look inside, a couple of sweaters will fall on you from a narrow shelf above. There’s no harm done – we all know closets are never big enough. I would like you to take out all the clothes made in Bangladesh. Many of you will have numerous items that were manufactured there. If you can’t find any, you aren’t looking hard enough.
Try searching in your kids’ closets or your partner’s walk-in. Try looking for items such as white T-shirts or tube socks. What about those leggings you wear out and throw away each month? One of the garment workers could have been making you a new pair as the building collapsed around her.
If you’re still looking, try the new oversized washing machine you gave the family for Christmas. You should find a few garments in there that fit the bill. As for me, I will add the six pairs of boxers that are still in their packaging from my last birthday.
Pile the garments on a bed.
The reason this heap comes from Bangladesh is that it’s cheaper for a retailer such as Loblaw’s Joe Fresh to buy it because import taxes on these items are next to zero. In recent years, Bangladesh has canvassed for more and more Canadian business and has acquired a large portion of our clothing manufacturing pie. While the orders were happily accepted, Bangladesh had no time to build a strong infrastructure to handle that demand.
Now it’s buckling under the colossal pressure of not just Canada but the rest of the world pushing it to export more each day. You could say we should just exit this country and not manufacture there any more, that they were the ones accepting the orders.
You’re right. Let’s find the new Bangladesh. Perhaps it should be Myanmar. I remember President Barack Obama shaking hands with President Thein Sein, promising better trade. If our hunger for cheap clothing is that insatiable, we could just leave these people in the rubble and go elsewhere.
Start folding the clothes on the bed.
If half of these garments were never to be seen again, would you miss them? I know you want to keep the chiffon shirt because you’re losing weight and will fit into it when summer comes, but what about the mustard cords or the beaded tunic that makes you sweat? If the price of these garments were higher, it would have taken you only a few minutes to pick the ones you could afford and leave the others in the store.
We’ve given Bangladesh huge orders, with the bonus of having garments retail at the lowest prices in our stores. Perhaps we should be looking into ways to help produce these goods in a safer manner. The workers who were made to go into an unstable building did not have a choice: work, or no pay. Labour unions could help to organize better conditions and monitor the manufacturers in a more efficient way.
At the moment, there are no labour unions in Bangladesh’s clothing sector. Asking our government and our largest retailers to help one of the poorest countries in the world improve their infrastructure doesn’t seem far-fetched when we are faced with the human toll of a collapsed building. Costs will go up, yes. But shouldn’t a T-shirt cost more than a latte?
Now close your eyes.
Remember those button-down shirts you bought in every colour? Picture a Bangladeshi worker folding each one to send to your favourite store. You know she gave you a great deal. Isn’t it time we returned the favour?
Sujeet Sennik is a Toronto-based clothing designer and writer.