The ruins of the eight-story building
The details about the disaster in Bangladesh become more and more harrowing. At least 187 people are known to have died when the eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed in Dhaka. Some 3,000 people were inside at the time, so the toll will probably rise.
We know that New Wave garment factory inside the building supplied both Primark and Bonmarche. That raises profoundly disturbing questions about the responsibility of Western companies and, indeed, consumers. The next time you buy a Primark T-shirt for £2.50 with “made in Bangladesh” on the label, ask yourself why this product is so cheap? If you care to consider the matter, you will know that the people who make it cannot be paid very much. But it gets worse. The harsh reality is they often have to work in death-traps.
We know that cracks were spotted in the structure of Rana Plaza on Tuesday. The police ordered an evacuation. The owners of the factory that supplied Primark and Bonmarche then told their staff to report for work on Wednesday morning or risk dismissal. So they turned up – and the building duly collapsed about them. There was also a crèche inside Rana Plaza for the children of the factory workers, most of whom were women. An unknown number of children have died.
Primark and Bonmarche now have salient questions to answer. How much did they know about conditions inside the factory when they placed their orders? Did they know that Rana Plaza was a deathtrap? If not, why were they so unaware? And if they did know, did they insist on improvements?
But the responsibility then passes to all of us. In the end, these companies are merely serving our demand for cheap clothes. They are giving us what we want, namely the ability to buy a shirt for £7 without asking any questions about the lives of those who made it.
At least in theory, there is an answer to this problem. Primark, Bonmarche and all the other big buyers should get together and agree they will only place supply contracts with factories that meet minimum standards of health and safety. The responsibility cannot simply be passed to the government of Bangladesh. If the state was capable of enforcing basic standards, it would surely have happened by now. So the companies will have to do what is necessary. But they won’t unless their customers demand as much. In the end, the responsibility rests with all of us.