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Column: Why can’t I be guaranteed that my clothes haven’t contributed to someone’s death?

Standardised textile labelling is vital to keep vulnerable workers safe in developing countries like Bangladesh, writes Aisling Twomey.

Aisling Twomey

THE RANA PLAZA factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed suddenly on 24 April, 2013. With estimates still rising, more than 700 are counted among the dead, more than 1000 among the injured. Others remain buried, missing beneath the rubble. The search has turned from hopeful to devastating; now, the searchers are seeking remains.

The Rana Plaza collapse is thought to be Bangladesh’s worst ever industrial accident, but it is by no means the first. In November 2012, Dhaka suffered a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory, in which 117 died. It was the deadliest fire in the nation’s history. The Tazreen Fashion factory, part of the Tuba group, produced clothing for Walmart and the United States Marine Corps, among others.

At the Rana Plaza, clothes were manufactured for Primark, Monsoon, Bonmarché, Matalan and at one point, the Benetton Group. On 23 April, inspectors discovered cracks in the building and requested its closure. According to the New York Times, the shops and the lower floor bank closed but the garment workers returned to work the following day.

The Ethical Trading Initiative

Monsoon, a founding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, is recognised as a leader in the ETI’s assessment criteria. The ETI’s slogan is “respect for workers worldwide.” Yet the factory workers reported that they were forced back to work on threat of wage withholding. Calling Monsoon an ethical trading leader clearly presents a misconception; the average garment worker in Bangladesh earns $37 a month, 60 per cent of the estimated cost of living in the local slums.

$37 is roughly equivalent to €29 – an easy amount spent in Penneys of a Saturday afternoon. Fashion is so cheap, until you realise that the cost in reality is sky high and rising every day, whether we see it or not.

Merriam Webster defines a sweatshop as “a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.” Rana Plaza fulfilled both, and nobody seems to have cared. The workers weren’t unionised, and their workplace fell from under them like a house of cards.

Why has Ireland not raised the issue?

You’d have thought that, at some point in the run of Ireland’s tenure holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a topic like this would come up for discussion. But it hasn’t, because combating sweatshops has never been a priority for the EU. Not only does the European Union not ban trade with factories demonstrating unethical practices, the tagging procedures required for clothing under EU law fall short of what transparency should dictate is necessary.

EU Regulation 1007/2011 outlines the reason for legislation on textile labelling: “If the provisions of the Member States with regard to names, composition and labelling of textile products were to vary from one Member State to another, this would create hindrances to the proper functioning of the internal market.”

Therein lies the difficulty. The European Union functions around the single internal market and regulates only within that zone; how that internal market operates with those less fortunate in other states seems to be less of an issue. This is possibly proved by the fact that country of origin labelling, while a topic of discussion since 2005, has never been implemented at EU level.

Consumers simply don’t have enough information

A 2011 report highlights the few benefits of country of origin labelling, stating that consumers would have better information but little else, because the label would have no impact on health and safety of consumers. Further, it stated, implementing the labelling would potentially lead to increased costs. The European Union often lauds human rights and citizenship, but in this case neglects to deal with a significant problem in the emergence of a globalised world.

The average consumer simply doesn’t have enough information to hand to aid them in making a judgement call. A standardisation system is required to keep fashion trading and the people who make it safe. As a consumer, I know that I am implicated in a supply chain that reeks of badness, but I feel that there is functionally nothing I can do about it, because so many suppliers suffer these conditions for just about every major high street chain.

An Abercrombie hoodie I own bears the tag “Fabricado Nas Flipinas.” The conditions faced by Abercrombie and Fitch factory workers in The Philippines earned A&F a name on the 2010 International Labor Rights Forum ‘Sweatshop Hall of Fame.’ Brands such as Sloggi, Triumph, Spalding, Hollister, Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, IKEA, Mothercare, Converse, Marks and Spencer – every one of them have been caught red handed; baby clothes and homewares are as implicated as fashion retail.

Until we stand up and take action, nothing will be done to stop sweatshops. When we wear clothes that say “Made in Bangladesh”, that doesn’t tell us whether conditions there are fair or equitable. And in my heart I suspect that they obviously were not.

Country of origin labels should be mandatory

In the end-credits of many blockbuster movies, a line proclaims that no animals were hurt in the making of the film. If we can assure that oversight for animals, why can’t my jumper guarantee on a tag that it was made in a safe and fair working environment. Why can’t I be guaranteed that my clothes haven’t contributed to someone’s death?

The dream would be a legal system of tagging. Each company should have to label clothing to state its country of origin. The factory name should be listed, and the EU should keep track of factories and how they operate. There are plenty of NGOs that already strive to do this work. When a company gets caught investing in sweatshops, a new tag should appear on their garments: Made in a Sweatshop. Punitive, deterrent measures are the only way to stop the festering carbuncle of sweatshop labour.

But – people will yell at me – it turns a profit. It keeps people working. Low paid labour is part of the developing world and that’s not necessarily a bad thing… But hang on; I don’t expect people to get Ireland’s minimum wage in the middle of Bangladesh. I understand basic economics. I want people to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. I want people to go to work and come home safely. I don’t want anyone buried under rubble for clothes I buy.

The chances are fair that you’re walking around wearing clothes that were made in Rana Plaza. And the person who made those clothes might well be dead because the floor collapsed from under her when she was trying to earn €29 a month.

It’s a House of Cards – but the floor isn’t going to fall from beneath you and I at all.

Aisling Twomey works in political communications and has a Masters in Criminal Justice from University College Cork. Her journalism work is available at aislingtwomey.me.

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Aisling Twomey

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