Concern in Action: Rana Plaza Is the Real Cost of Cheaper Clothing

Concern Worldwide’s risk-and-response unit has a prescription to keep the next garment-factory disaster from happening.

Farida holds a photo of her son, a missing garment worker employed in the collapsed Rana Plaza factory building. (Photo: Concern Worldwide)

May 8, 2013

‘Concern in Action’ is a recurring field report from Concern Worldwide. Founded in Ireland in 1968, Concern Worldwide is a global organization tackling extreme poverty in the world’s poorest and most danger-ridden countries.

Farida did not know if her son was alive or dead. Tears streaming down her face, Farida showed person after person his photograph. No one had any information. Doctors, firefighters, policemen—no one had any evidence that he had made it out alive.

Her son, a garment worker in the now-infamous Rana Plaza, could be one of the more than 600 people killed when the nine-story building collapsed, enveloping more than 3,000 people in concrete and steel. I met her as part of a small assessment team with the humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide amid the search-and-rescue mission the day after the factory collapsed.

The scene was sheer chaos.

More than 1,000 rescue workers, from members of the armed forces and firefighters to everyday people, tirelessly tore through the building’s remains in search of survivors. Emergency medical clinics were overflowing with people in need of immediate care, while relatives of garment workers, like Farida, frantically searched for their loved ones. The fear that their family members would not be among the lucky ones pulled from the rubble grew palpably greater by the minute.

More than a week has passed since Rana Plaza collapsed. With it, the hope that any remaining garment workers will be uncovered alive also dies. The rescue mission continues, and the injured need treatment. But that just scratches at the surface of what is needed for families—and Bangladesh as a country—to recover from this heart-wrenching tragedy.

The fact that two women gave birth in the rubble of Rana Plaza is a testament to the working conditions these women endure every day to make the clothes that are sold on department store racks a world away.

For one, most of the workers who died or were injured were their families’ sole breadwinners. Those families will now have to figure out how to scrape by without those wages. I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of the government, factory owners, and the owner of the building to ensure that the survivors and their families—most of whom are among the poorest in Bangladesh—are not driven deeper into poverty by a catastrophe that was not of their making.

The anguish of Rana Plaza began long before its walls buckled.

Bangladesh’s garment-makers, most of whom are women, work around the clock just to earn $37 a month—the lowest wages paid by any garment-producing country in the world. Lowering costs inevitably leads to factories cutting corners on building regulations, and skimping on the health and safety issues of the workers. Workers are scolded or fired if they speak, and have no healthcare, sick leave or benefits of any kind. They do not have the right to form a trade union.

Rescue workers scramble to find signs of hope in rubble from Bangladesh’s latest garment factory disaster. (Photo: Concern Worldwide)

The fact that two women gave birth in the rubble of Rana Plaza is a testament to the working conditions these women endure every day to make the clothes that are sold on department store racks a world away.

Boycotting clothes made in Bangladesh is not the answer, but the end consumer needs to demand more from the stores they shop in. Clothing companies that rely on cheap labor to keep profit margins high also rely on the buyer to ignore the inhumane conditions their products are made in.

It’s time for that to stop.

While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recognized on May 2 that Bangladesh’s garment-making industry is wrought with problems and said her government was moving quickly to fix them, international buyers are also in part responsible and need to demand greater transparency on how their clothes are made.

To start, retailers should sign onto the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, a plan that requires independent structural inspections of factories, the findings of which are made public. PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, has embraced the agreement, but it will take more retailers to follow suit to change an industry that employs more than four million people and generates more than $19 billion for the country each year.

As a humanitarian organization working for more than 40 years in Bangladesh, Concern Worldwide will work with our partners on initiatives to ensure that factories comply with the safety and security laws that are so often ignored—and as Rana Plaza showed us all, at immense human cost.

Are you willing to spend a few dollars more on your garments to improve living conditions for the people who make them? Reason through how you can put that willingness into action in COMMENTS.

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