Wed, Dec 22, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Clothes are cheap, and so are workers’ lives

One hundred Bangladeshi workers died in a fire last week, the latest tragedy in a country where 40 million people toil for a pittance in makeshift factories to keep Western high streets stocked. Enough is enough

By Lucy Siegle  /  The Observer, LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

On this, the prime retail weekend of the year in countries celebrating Christmas, it seems fatuous to say that almost nothing can come between a retailer and its rabidly enthusiastic public. Except, that is, for UK Uncut, a dynamic grassroots protest group, which, during the pre-Christmas rush, succeeded in closing the flagship branch of Topshop and other Arcadia enterprises.

I felt a pang of jealousy. It’s not that I don’t support the cause: The highlighting of Sir Philip Green (rich as Croesus and the British government’s adviser on austerity) and his nifty tax arrangements through Mrs Green’s Monaco account is a noble cause. However, I wondered why we don’t get that sort of protester turnout and action when garment workers producing for Arcadia and other high street retailers are discovered to be subsisting on slave wages.

Ask, as I often do, the retailers to tell you how they have managed to make fashion unprecedentedly cheap (in the past decade clothing prices have undergone extraordinary deflation) and they will give you the usual guff about their logistics genius, deft bargaining skills and how they don’t waste money on advertising and flowers in reception. This is the strategy apparently behind aviator jackets, skinny jeans and knitted cardigans that cost the same as a sandwich and a coffee.

Funnily enough, the one thing they never mention is the workforce responsible for manufacturing the giant amount of annually consumed fashion. In Bangladesh alone more than 1.5 million pairs of jeans are sewn every year by an unseen, unacknowledged army of an estimated 40 million people. This army is the engine for the Cut Make Trim (CMT) part of fashion (the point in the fashion chain where the garment is assembled and sewn) and toils in about 250,000 garment factories, predominantly in the least developed countries.

Life in the CMT army is grim, particularly in Bangladesh. A report last year by the International Trade Union Confederation gave workers there the inauspicious title of “most poorly paid in the world” and reckoned exploitation to be on the rise. However, even against that unpromising introduction, the past seven days have been bad for ready-made garment (RMG) workers indeed.

Last Sunday riots broke out in garment factories in Chittagong and Ashulia, north of Dhaka. Or as the Bangladeshi paper the Daily Star put it, “RMG workers go berserk,” featuring photographs of upturned sewing machines and work tables. Protests by garment workers aren’t uncommon, but last Sunday they were met by the Rapid Action Battalion (a sort of hybrid between the police and army) and at least three protesters appear to have been shot dead.

For workers in such a risky situation to jeopardize their only source of income by protesting raises the question: How desperate are they? The answer is very. Labor rights groups have long warned that civil unrest from garment workers will only increase as food prices rise and ever decreasing wages mean many workers are attempting to feed families on less than £1 (US$1.55) a day while working six to seven days a week. Studies show that female workers in particular find it hard to consume enough calories to sustain them through their working hours.

As we were reminded only two days later, the job of a garment worker is also very dangerous. Last Tuesday a fire broke out at the That’s It Sportswear factory, also in Ashulia. The facility is run by one of Bangladesh’s biggest garment export companies, Ha-Meem, and produces for global retailers including Gap. As always — there are so many fatal garment factory fires in Bangladesh that I have lost count — this was an accident waiting to happen. However, this time it has received international press attention because of the size of the fatality list (still unconfirmed, it seems as if 100 people died) and its chronological proximity to last Sunday’s riots.

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