Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Be careful what you buy!

The recent collapse of a building in Bangladesh that killed more than 700 people has provoked reaction from across the globe. 

Firstly, because so many people lost their lives. Secondly, because labour conditions had clearly been so terrible for so long. And thirdly, because some of the people in charge – on the ground and overseas – have tried to shirk their responsibilities and pass the buck.

The collapse of this illegally built structure was the third deadly factory-based incident in Bangladesh in just the last six months. While the factory owners and managers are clearly guilty of negligence, so, to some degree, are the firms they were supplying in Europe and beyond.

Now it would be easy at this point to point the finger at companies like Primark, especially as this particular firm has found itself in hot water in the past in relation to child labour infringements. However, it’s not just the low-end fashion firms that are to blame – some at the very top of the chain have also been embroiled in worker-related scandals. I would go as far as to say that the problem is pretty much industry-wide.

It’s encouraging to hear that Primark and Loblaw have agreed to compensate the families of garment workers that were killed while making their clothes. And it’s also a good sign that representatives from 45 companies, including Gap, H&M, Nike, Wal-Mart, Primark, Marks & Spencer and Tesco have met with officials from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in Dhaka to discuss factory and worker safety going forward.

But what’s all this got to do with us? Well, according to Reuters, around 3.6 million people work within Bangladesh's garment industry, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter. Around 60% of these exports are shipped to Europe. So although we may be reluctant to accept it, we too are partly to blame for the maltreatment and even the death of workers in the developing world because of the choices we make as consumers.

Most of us work in environments where we are safe and comfortable; where health and safety measures are legislated and enforced. We are paid a fair wage and given holidays and other perks as standard. We expect to be treated well by our employees and protected from abuse and discrimination. We know our rights and we are determined to stand up for them.

On the other hand, these factory workers – the majority of whom are women, by the way – do not have such an easy ride. Many work long hours for next to nothing because they have no other prospects and need to feed their families. There is no job protection for workers and if injury occurs and the employee can no longer work, there is rarely any compensation.

As you try to do your bit for the environment by buying organic cotton or feel a bit smug about keeping those in developing countries in employment by stacking your wardrobe to overflowing, think about what your buying habits actually mean to the people making those clothes: those in Bangladesh and beyond.

Now many of us have tight budgets, and that’s fine: buying ethically doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the bank. But it might mean buying one item from a ‘safe’ source rather than three from a company that outsources its work to unknown entities.

One great way to monitor what you’re buying – whether it be clothing, food, banking services or other goods – is to download the Good Shopping Guide app, which is available from iTunes and the Apple store. It costs just £2.99 and provides a list of the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of the environment, human rights and animal welfare.

Read more from Joy in the upcoming issue of Liberti.

(Also, click here to get a Christian take on this situation. This blog from Rhythms looks at the biblical command to clothe and feed the poor, and how this has been turned on its head so that the poor are not only clothing us, but are dying the process.)

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