Editorial: Lessons to learn from Bangladesh

International clothing companies, while not directly liable, must bear a share of the responsibility for what happened at Rana Plaza and compensation is not enough

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With the death toll from the collapse of a factory building in Dhaka last month now topping 1,000, the incident has become the worst industrial disaster in South Asia since the Bhopal gas leak in 1984.

Primarily, the blame lies squarely with the owners at Rana Plaza. Not only were basic building regulations not observed, but cracks appearing in the walls of the building were ignored, as were the repeated warnings that it was unsafe. Worried workers were even allegedly threatened with the sack if they failed to turn up.

The Bangladeshi government is also culpable: for failing to enforce planning codes, of course, but also for the often shambolic rescue operation and for the rejection of assistance from the international community. More lives could, perhaps, have been saved.

Finally, international clothing companies, while not directly liable, must bear a share of the responsibility nonetheless. A number were buyers at Rana Plaza, and two of them – Primark and Canada’s Loblaw – were swift to offer compensation to victims and their families.

Compensation is not enough. And such measures as there are in place to ensure basic industrial good practice are clearly insufficient. Whatever the British high street’s appetite for cheap clothes, even the most price-conscious shoppers baulk at such appalling collateral cost.

Nor is the answer simply to pull out of low-cost markets such as Bangladesh. The involvement of Western companies can be a force for good – providing much-needed investment, jobs and, in theory at least, a prod towards better working conditions.

It is this last that must now be the priority. Sad to say, so many Bangladeshi politicians are linked to the $20bn-a-year garment industry that meaningful reform is unlikely to come unprompted. For the same reason, though, Western buyers have real leverage. They must use it.

That means not just paying closer attention to their suppliers’ conditions. It also means putting pressure on corrupt or inept governments to enforce regulations. Otherwise, there will be more Rana Plazas and more lives lost. A fractional rise in the cost of a T-shirt is a price worth paying.

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