Rana Plaza two years on: the hidden costs of our economic system


On the second anniversary of the collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building, we reflect on the lessons of the disaster.

Exactly two years ago factory workers were ushered into the Rana Plaza complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, even though an engineer had declared the building unsafe.  Over a thousand people were to die after the eight-storey building collapsed later that day.  The death toll was eventually to stand at 1,134.

The temptation is to think this is a story that has little to do with us, tragic as it is.  Yet those who died had been busily producing clothes you can find in many of the stores on our high streets – outlets including Primark, Benetton, and Walmart (owners of ASDA).  It is possible that, browsing through the racks in these shops, we have come into direct, physical contact with some of the handiwork of those who died; it is possible that you own some of the clothes that they stitched together.

The collapse of Rana Plaza should have been a turning point.  It should have been the moment at which we, here in Europe or across the Atlantic in America, woke up to the appalling effect that our economic system can have on our neighbours.

Yet little progress has been made in the two years since the disaster.  Some companies, to be fair, were quick to help set up a compensation fund, and sign an accord guaranteeing better conditions and safety measures for those employed in their supply chain.  Others were rather less forthcoming.  Indeed the compensation fund is still owed some $6m, meaning that the relatives of the victims remain underpaid to this day.

Compensation would help, of course; but it is not enough.  How do you compensate someone who has lost a mother, a spouse to a preventable industrial accident?  No: what is really needed is structural change.

Although around 200 companies have signed up to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (some more willingly than others) it is still the case that conditions are poor for many workers.  And the same goes for workers in other industries across the developing world.

Defenders of the system say these workers are better off than they would be if they still lived in impoverished rural villages.  That may be true, but it isn’t the right comparison to make.  ‘Better than nothing’ may still mean next to nothing.  We can, and therefore should, do better than that.

How?  Firstly by taking full account of the costs of the goods on which we rely to live the lives we do.

These ‘costs’ cannot be measured in purely monetary terms.  They include the minimal pay and poor conditions of the workers who make our goods, the effects of pollution on the wider population, the carbon emissions that drive climate change, the toxic chemicals used without adequate health and safety precautions, and more.

In short, the true costs of our products include all the toxic side-effects we have, so far, refused to clear up or prevent.  The problem is, ignoring them doesn’t make the toxins – literal or metaphorical – go away.  It’s just that someone else has to bear the cost.

And one of the best ways to start uncovering these hidden costs is by taking a hard, clear-eyed look at Rana Plaza.  Set aside half an hour or so to watch the sobering, at times stunning interactive film produced last year by the Guardian to mark the first anniversary of the disaster.  Indeed if you watch or read nothing else on Rana Plaza, or on the ethics of the global economy, you must watch this.  Be warned: there are some disturbing images in it.  But it is essential that we look in the eyes of those we ask to take these kinds of risks to make our way of life possible.

Otherwise, visit one of the many campaigning websites that highlight these issues.  The ILO is as good a place as any to start, or try the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Or there are books available on the subject, such as We Are What we Wear by Lucy Siegle and Jason Burke, released by the Guardian, and available as an e-book.

If enough of us do this, and join the fight, then perhaps Rana Plaza will have been a turning point after all.

24 April 2015


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