The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh in April dominated global attention for weeks, as rescuers fought to pull survivors from the ruins. More than 1,200 died in the country’s worst industrial tragedy; another 1,900 were injured.
The disaster had a particularly grim resonance because clothes sold by many international chains were produced by Rana Plaza workers paid miserly wages and working long hours in Dickensian conditions. Customers of brands including Primark, Matalan, and Walmart were forced to examine their consciences as the human cost of those low price tags became horribly clear.
Since then, however, Primark has emerged as an unlikely hero of the disaster. Not only did the company waste no time in paying three months’ salaries both to the injured and to the families of those who died. (It is so far the only retailer involved to do so.) Its representatives also showed up in Geneva yesterday for a meeting of retailers who sourced clothes from Rana Plaza’s factories, chaired by the International Labour Organisation, to discuss compensation.
In fairness, 10 other companies were present at the meeting called by IndustriALL, the global industrial union, including Matalan and Bon Marché, and they agreed to contribute to a new fund to help the victims. Primark also agreed to pay another tranche of salaries. But, scandalously, another 20 failed to turn up, including Benetton, Carrefour, Mango and Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer.
Some of those who stayed away insist that they intend to make their own compensation arrangements, but others have pledged nothing. If retailers are too mean and hard-hearted to act spontaneously, it is up to their customers to give vigorous demonstration of their outrage. In the meantime, Rana Plaza’s impoverished victims and their families – with neither work nor compensation – are learning brutal lessons about the priorities in the wealthy West.