Sichuan, China (2008) and Tohoku, Japan (2011) saw two of the deadliest and costliest earthquakes in the last five years. These two events led to 100,000 people being either killed or missing, and it costs governments a combined estimate of $430,000M. When one thinks of the recent clothing factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where over 900 lives have been so far claimed, the comparison seems almost unmatched. However, this incident in Bangladesh provides a harsh reminder of how volatile and disastrous poor construction practices can be, even in the absence of an earthquake.
On April 24th, an eight-storey building used to house garment factories collapsed outside Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. The death toll has so far surpassed the 900 mark, and there are many more people presumed dead and/or missing. It has been widely reported that such collapses are a common occurrence in Bangladesh and that while many such buildings exhibit signs of an imminent collapse, owners show no hint of concern.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza last month has sparked mass protest by many garment workers, who claim that they were forced to work in ‘death trap’ buildings that had notable cracks in them. This tragic incident has been labelled as one of the worst industrial accidents in the last decades – but are we also partly to blame?
Bangladesh has one of the largest garment industries in the world, providing competitively priced clothes for major Western retailers at unjust low-cost labour. Four garment factories occupied six of the eight floors of Rana Plaza, with the other two being used as a market and a bank. The garment factors include: New Wave Bottoms (suppliers for Primark, Matalan and Bonmarche), Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tack and Ethar Textile (reportedly suppliers for Walmart in the US).
In the fashion world, Primark and Walmart are to clothing what McDonald’s is to food: Fast and cheap. In the recent rise of such cheap and fast fashion, garment consumption has also sky-rocketed The lure of decent clothes at affordable prices would be enough to send anyone with a bank card on a spending frenzy. So much is the case that some high end retailers are not turning a high profit due customers finding relatively cheaper alternatives – in fact people often joke about shopping at ‘Primani’.
With all this cheap fashion around, who can blame us poor Westerners really? People will most definitely continue to shop at these retailers, and I am not advocating for a boycott of such brands. While I have already discussed the environmental implications of consumerism, the Rana Plaza incident exposes the far more sinister issue of fair trade.
When buying your 16th summer dress, your 8th handbag, your 12th tie or your 23rd shirt, each at less than a tenner (£10), ask yourself if you REALLY need them. Next time you visit your local fast fashion store, spare a thought for the underpaid Bangladeshi workers forced to work in dangerous, crowded and borderline deadly conditions.
Many people love to use the words ‘Act of God’ to describe environmental disasters such as those in Sichuan and Tohoku. In the case of Rana Plaza, I personally label it as an ‘Act of Consumerism’, brought on by Western companies trying to cut production costs and fuelled by frantic bargain hungry shoppers such as ourselves.