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Column: The Bangladesh factory collapse shows us the deadly cost of cheap fashion

Following the tragic accident at a Bangladesh clothing factory, Penneys has said it will give money to people who lost family members in the collapse – but we as consumers have a responsibility too, says Ruth Tanner.

OVER 400 PEOPLE have been confirmed dead and many more missing in the collapse of a building in Bangladesh which housed garment factories making clothes for Primark and other major brands. Over a thousand more have been injured in one of the worst industrial disasters of recent times.

High street retailers have been making huge profits off the backs of workers in factories like these. Garment workers pay a high price to produce cheap clothes for the high street. They struggle to survive on extremely low pay, suffering poor working conditions, arduous hours and a complete lack of trade union representation in the factories.

Wide-scale neglect

Sadly this was not an isolated incident in the Bangladeshi garment industry but an endemic problem of wide-scale neglect. According to the International Labour Rights Forum’s recent report, Deadly Secrets, since 1990 over 1,000 people have been killed and 3,000 workers injured in more than 275 unsafe factory incidents in Bangladesh. Accounts of the different fires clearly show that many of these tragic deaths could have been prevented had the factories met even basic safety standards.

If high street chains like Primark had put in place proper measures to ensure the workers who make their clothes are safe, then tragedies such as we saw last week could have been avoided. Unfortunately retailers pay lip service to corporate social responsibility whilst engaging in buying practices that systematically undermine the principles of decent work.

When you’re faced with the true cost of cheap fashion the natural response is to say that you with avoid certain shops or even boycott brands. However this is not the answer; 3.5 million people, mostly women, work in the garment sector in Bangladesh and millions more around the world. These jobs are crucial and we shouldn’t put them at risk.

Responsibility to the workers who make our clothes

However we do have a responsibility to the workers and there is something we can do about it. The brands care what their costumers think. In less than a week 70,000 people have already signed a petition launched by our partners in Bangladesh the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF).

NGWF members have been killed in the building collapse. The petition demands that the companies pay full compensation and take action to ensure that a tragedy like this is not repeated.

Global outrage and protest has already had an effect. Primark have taken the significant step of promised to pay compensation to the victims that worked in its supplier factory. Getting Primark to take responsibilities for its role in this disaster is a huge step forwards.

This must be a turning point

Primark must make good on their commitment and other companies must follow suit. For the families who have lost relatives and the workers injured in this disaster, nothing can undo what they have lost. As they face the terrible consequences of this tragedy it is vital that they are paid full compensation from all the companies involved, including their lost earnings.

The terrible events we’ve witnessed with shock and horror must be a turning point. It’s time that retailers took responsibility for their actions by ensuring justice for the workers and taking action to ensure this never happens again. An important first step would be by signing up to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. This is a binding agreement that would make companies act responsibly.

Now is the time to take action and demand justice for the people who make our clothes.

Ruth Tanner is the Campaigns and Policy Director for War on Want (UK).

Read: Penneys: We will pay compensation to victims of Bangladesh factory collapse>

Read:  ‘Stench of dead bodies is so strong’ says Bangladesh building rescuers>

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