Primark and the high street: Why are the workers who make our cheap clothes paying with their lives?

The fallout from last week's disaster has seen a period of panic for clothing brands while they wait to see whether any of their labels are found in the wreckage

Share

Campaign groups around the world are rightly rounding on Primark following the tragic collapse of one of their suppliers' factories in Bangladesh last week which, at the last count, killed nearly 300 people.

Labels from a number of the UK's most popular – and profitable - High Street brands including Primark and Mango were found amongst the rubble.

But is Primark, with its cheap-as-chips, stack-'em-high sales pitch really the worst of the bunch when it comes to workers’ rights?

Sadly not.

The recent factory collapse is only the latest of many such incidents which happen every year in Bangladesh and other major garment-producing countries around the world. These incidents happen depressingly often due to a lack of health and safety regulations such as blocked fire escapes and lack of ventilation.

Just last year a massive factory fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory near the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka killed over 120 workers. On this occasion it was Walmart that was among those named and shamed.

So why are the workers who make our cheap clothes still paying with their lives?

The answer lies in the way that the global garment industry operates which allows companies to evade their responsibility for the often appalling sweatshop working conditions at these factories.

High Street companies don’t actually own any of the factories where their garments are produced. Instead they contract out production to factories all around the world.

A factory may be contracted to produce only one run of garments, or it may be used regularly by the same company over a period of years. Put simply, companies will opt for whichever factory offers them the cheapest price.

Campaigners have long been encouraging companies to pursue long-term agreements with suppliers so that they can better work together to improve conditions on the ground for workers.

The fallout from last week's disaster has played out in a well-rehearsed manner with a period of panic for clothing brands whilst they wait to see whether any of their labels are found in the wreckage.

Inevitably one or two brands will be proven to have links with the unlucky factory and they'll take the flack from press and campaigners. However, it’s almost certain that other labels lie undiscovered.

So if you want to avoid ethically dodgy High Street stores who should you avoid?

The bad news is that unpicking the threads of this issue is eye-wateringly complicated simply because it's virtually impossible to establish what clothes were made in what factory and whether the workers there are being paid a fair wage.

What we can say with certainty is that virtually all High Street stores have yet to produce concrete evidence that their clothing is sweatshop-free.

Only a handful of companies including M&S and Monsoon have policies in place that aim to guarantee that the workers making their clothing are being treated fairly. Even then, problems still occur all too often.

Ethical Consumer's Buyers' Guide to High Street clothes shops goes into some detail on who is best and worst in this regard.

So much for the bad news.

The good news is that here in the UK we have a thriving ethical fashion sector which is proving that your shirts and skirts can be produced without putting workers' lives at risk.

In the latest Ethical Consumer Product Guide to fashion we've named over a dozen Best Buy ethical clothing companies from Annie Greenabelle to THTC who are forging an entirely new business model for the clothing industry, one based on generating a market for artisan clothing from around the world rather than ripping-off workers.

Sure, buying clothes online isn't as easy as nipping down the High Street, but really, we need to stop making excuses. We now buy around four times as many garments ever year as we did in 1980. Frankly, the vast majority of this is entirely unnecessary.

My challenge to everyone is to halve the quantity of clothes you buy and double your spend on each item. Use your money wisely and you can stop supporting the sweatshop-producers.

And if you wanted to do something for Bangladeshi garment workers that doesn't cost a penny, then sign the online petition which the brilliant Clean Clothes Campaign is running with the help of local unions.

The petition is calling on clothing companies to sign up to an action plan to improve workers' rights and for a compensation package for the victims of last year's Tazreen fire.

Something as frivolous as fashion shouldn't be a life and death issue.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

£35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe