Consumers love cheap clothes and shoes, but who is really paying the price for these bargains?
The answer was revealed brutally to the world last month in the horror of the latest in a series of factory disasters in Bangladesh. Nearly 500 workers were crushed to death when a building near Dhaka—where several factories are located—collapsed. The building owners had recently and illegally added three storeys. Major structural faults appeared, but the factory managers ignored the warnings. They had production orders to fill.
Thanks to globalization of markets and the elimination of tariffs, the Southeast Asian nation has a booming $20-billion-a-year garment industry employing 3 million people. Canadian imports account for more than $1 billion of that amount. Since 2005, more than 1,000 workers in the country have died in factory fires and building collapses.
Thousands of people, mainly young women work in sub-standard conditions to feed the supply chain of major importers, including Loblaws and its Joe Fresh brand. Who can forget media reports of trapped workers begging to have an arm cut off so they could free themselves from the rubble? Think of this next time you consider buying a $9.99 shirt. Without a doubt, we consumers are complicit and we owe it to the victims to act.
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Nobody wants to deprive Bangladesh garment workers of employment. That is one of the benefits of globalization, even if it has destroyed industries and jobs in North America. But let’s not kid ourselves about the nature of this work. The minimum wage in Quebec has just been boosted to $10.15 an hour—in Bangladesh, with what is considered the lowest minimum wage in the world, the lowest echelon garment worker toils for $38 a month. Many are forced to work double shifts, finishing at 2 am and expected back at 7:30 am. Sexual harassment is widespread, and the right to maternity leave is not universally recognized. Managers fight against the formation of trade unions.
For importers specializing in low-cost garments, such as Loblaws, Wal-Mart, and Spanish fast-fashion brand Mango, the highly publicized disaster is also a PR disaster. Compensation has been promised to victims and their families, and there are calls for importers to make more of an effort to ensure that minimum safety standards are maintained.
It is up to us, the consumers, to show solidarity with the workers. Signing petitions at Change.org is one way; inspecting labels that indicate where a garment is manufactured is another. Let’s start by boycotting those from Bangladesh. Importers and manufacturers will get the message when items are left on the rack.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association was already under pressure and, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, has lost $500 million in export orders because of strikes and port blockades as workers battle for improved wages and working conditions.
When suppliers use their considerable heft to enforce safe and salubrious working conditions, and improve base pay rates, we can return to purchasing their products.
For now, these pieces of clothing represent blood, pain, suffering and abuse.