The collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, nearly a year ago, was the worst industrial accident of the modern globalised economy.
More than 1,100 people, mostly garment workers, died. In one of the largest mega-cities in the world – the Greater Dhaka area has a population of 17 million – they were employed, in a block with a partly Spanish name, to make clothes for the European and United States markets.
For once, the connections of the world economy were brought home to shoppers at branches of Primark all over the UK. Where politicians usually talk about globalisation as a threat (we have to compete with the emerging markets of Asia) and an opportunity (free trade makes us richer), we realised that it is also a moral responsibility.
Most of us agreed that it was worth paying a few pence more for a T-shirt to minimise the risk of such loss of life. More than that, though, the disaster brought home to Western consumers the link between poor conditions and low pay in the countries that sustain our material comforts. It was worth paying a few pence more for a T-shirt not just to prevent workers being crushed to death but to pay them a decent wage and give them a better life.
Since then, the subject has disappeared from the headlines, but some of the resolutions made at the time have borne fruit. Some of the high-street names that indirectly employed the victims of Rana Plaza compensated their families promptly and generously, with Primark leading the way.
Others have stepped up to their continuing responsibility for the welfare of their workers in emerging economies. As we report today on page 14, four brands have made progress towards paying “living wages”, according to Labour Behind the Label, the campaign for workers’ rights. Half the companies surveyed by the campaign had codes of conduct committing them to a living wage, but only Marks & Spencer, Inditex, Switcher and Tchibo had actually done anything about it.
Campaigns such as Labour Behind the Label, and MPs such as Rushanara Ali, who has a large number of British-Bangladeshi constituents, have done valuable work in acting as the transmission mechanism for the conscience of the West. By identifying the good and the bad retailers on the high street, they have enabled shoppers to use their ethical consumer power to make a difference.
The report produced by Labour Behind the Label to mark next month’s anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse identifies Debenhams, Matalan and The North Face as brands that are failing to live up to their responsibilities. You, the consumer, have the power to act on that information.
There are those who might see this kind of consumer activism as a pointless attempt to soften the harsh reality of capitalism, and there are others who think it is a distraction from the pursuit of economic growth, which is in our interest as much as it is in that of the people of Bangladesh.
The Independent on Sunday disagrees with both varieties of pessimism. Modern capitalism has been the most successful anti-poverty programme ever. Aid is important in emergencies and at the extremes, but what has made the difference in China, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and elsewhere has been trade. But trade is not just a matter of chasing the cheapest possible goods regardless of the human cost. The pursuit of profit tends to benign outcomes, but it is not a substitute for morality. It needs to be guided by ethics. This is not just about clothes, still less cheap clothes. Ethical consumers should drive ethical trade in everything we buy.
Trade is better than aid, and fair trade is better than unfair trade.