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Raehana Akhter, a 22-year-old mother who worked as a quality control officer for about $2 a day, was in the Rana Plaza garment factory building that collapsed in Bangladesh. ‘It was like stepping into an elevator [shaft]. I felt this feeling in my stomach, and then everything fell.’ (AMIRUL RAJIV FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Raehana Akhter, a 22-year-old mother who worked as a quality control officer for about $2 a day, was in the Rana Plaza garment factory building that collapsed in Bangladesh. ‘It was like stepping into an elevator [shaft]. I felt this feeling in my stomach, and then everything fell.’ (AMIRUL RAJIV FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Spinning tragedy: The true cost of a T-shirt Add to ...

“The buyers are actually the ones responsible for things like subcontracting and [illegal] overtime,” says Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia. “They know the capacity of their suppliers. If the factory has a capacity of one million and they place an order for 1.5 million, that extra has to come from somewhere.”

“But they don’t want to know. It’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ That’s the business model,” Mr. Loo continues.

A need for change

One way to change working conditions may be to change that business model – and the price of the global T-shirt.

That’s certainly what Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is pushing for.

“Buyers should come up with necessary support and increase the price of the clothes so that the garment workers can get better wages to improve their economic condition,” she told the visiting Dutch Foreign Minister this spring.

Fellow Bangladeshi Mohammed Yunus, a Nobel-winning economist, has a more specific proposal – that all made-in-Bangladesh clothing be subject to a 50-cent tariff that would flow to a fund for improving wages and safety, and perhaps establish a pension plan for garment workers: “Would a consumer in a shopping mall feel upset if they were asked to pay $35.50 instead of $35 for the item of clothing? My answer is: No, they’ll not even notice.”

Mr. Rockowitz of Li & Fung says he sees a new awareness among consumers. “What’s happened now – what’s going on in Bangladesh – I think people are much more hypersensitive. I think it’s going to improve the industry,” he says. “The last 10 years, most reputable retailers had a concern about [factory] compliance, but it wasn’t right at the top. Now it’s right at the top.”

Swedish giant H&M, for example, was a favourite target of the lobby group Clean Clothes Campaign for years. Now, it makes its supply chains public information, and pays extra to factories to ensure basic safety standards are met. Wal-Mart made a blanket declaration that it will stop producing in any factory that does not meet its standards, which has factories scrambling to meet the company’s slowly rising standards.

The problem, though, is getting beyond individual acts of generosity or change to a consistent, industry-wide overhaul.

Both Loblaw and its British sister company Primark have now signed a legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh that calls for brands to disclose the names of their suppliers and to “ensure that sufficient funds are available to pay for renovations and other safety improvements” at factories. A number of other brands – including Wal-Mart, Gap, Hudson’s Bay and Canadian Tire – designed a separate accord, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, that promises many of the same things but makes compliance voluntary.

A general lack of industry progress, however, leaves Mr. Weston “very frustrated and disappointed with the pace at which the apparel industry is moving on this,” he says.

Meanwhile, consumers keep buying Joe Fresh – a sweet relief for Loblaw after years of struggling to find the right balance of food and non-food items – and the line has now rolled out at J.C. Penney, the U.S. department store chain.

Which is exactly what victims like Raehana Akhter want.

In the search for solutions, one point everybody in Bangladesh agrees on is that a boycott by Western consumers of the “Made in Bangladesh” label would have catastrophic consequences for a country just starting to climb the development hill.

“If they don’t buy our clothes, what will we eat? What other jobs do we have in the villages?” Ms. Akhter asks.

As she is interviewed, the young woman lies in a bed at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed, a Bangladeshi non-government organization that has assisted dozens of the most badly injured Rana Plaza survivors.

Despite the efforts of her rescuer, Ms. Akhter had her left leg amputated below the knee while she was in her coma, which lasted eight days.

In July, though, she was already hobbling about on crutches and making plans to get on with her life as soon as the specialists at the centre fit her with a prosthetic leg.

She’s heard nothing about the promises Loblaw has made to directly compensate the Rana Plaza victims. But she says that she would use any money she receives to get out of the garment industry and start her own business.

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE T-SHIRT

The year 2013 is something of a centenary for the T-shirt. In 1913, the U.S. States Navy ordered large quantities of what up to that point had been an unassuming piece of men’s underwear and gave it to sailors to wear beneath their uniforms. The “bachelor undershirt,” as one manufacturer called it, had been invented in the late 19th century and geared toward single men who, lacking sewing skills, needed low-maintenance clothing. The collar-less shirt’s simple, light cotton design meant it could be pulled over the head and still keep its shape, and there were no buttons to break or lose.

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