(Editor’s Note: For the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh – the deadliest garment worker disaster in history, killing ten times as many people as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which led to unionization and fair treatment of garment workers in the United States – Swedish fashion writer Patrick Hjerten offered me this article and interview with H&M. You can find Patrick at his blog, I Would Kill for Fashion and on Twitter.)
On the 24th of April 2013 the Rana Plaza Building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a thousand people, and injuring many more. Most of these were workers (and their children in daycare) at five textile production factories located in the building. According to uniglobalunion.org the building was declared unsafe and workers had been forced to return to work at the factories – despite the fact that deep cracks in the walls had been spotted the day before by inspectors.
What they produced there was clothing made for Western companies to provide the market with cheap clothes. Since the labour costs are much lower in Asia, European and US companies started outsourcing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The conditions for the workers in Asia are quite different from the ones in the West which has highlighted that there are more factors than price that should affect a purchase decision, like ethical and environmental conditions.
Have western companies changed their policies and goals since the disaster in Bangladesh happened? And what is most important to us consumers? The price of a t-shirt or the work conditions for people on the other side of the world?
I asked Lina Wall, Global Press Contact at H&M – one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers – if they had done any changes in production after the disaster in Bangladesh and what can kind of control system they have. Wall says that they had no production in the Rana Plaza buildings in Bangladesh and that H&M has for several years worked proactively to create better working conditions for the workers that manufacture their products. H&M see that they with the rest of the textile and clothing industry have a responsibility in creating a long lasting and sustainable structure. H&M’s belief is that it should be based on an insurance system that should complement and strengthen the existing system (there are safety regulations for buildings in Bangladesh – they were just not followed by these particular factory owners). That is one reason why H&M works with the “Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety” and why they want to develop an insurance system of international standards for countries where clothing production is situated.
When asked about the work H&M do today concerning environment and ethics, as well as what they plan in the future, Wall answered that in 2013 they entered a three year partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. Together they created a new strategy of how H&M uses water in their clothing production. H&M have also launched a “Wage Road Map” based on their vision that all of their suppliers should pay decent wages that can sustain the workers and their everyday life. You can read more about H&M’s sustainability policies here.
I also wanted to know if H&M plan to take back more production to Europe and what positive actions a global company can take. Lina Wall says that to date they have production in Romania and Turkey – H&M feel that they can have a positive influence on these countries as well as in Asia. Since today’s economy is global it is not a question if H&M should have a presence in these countries, but how that presence affects said countries. International trade plays an important role in the development of these countries concerning economic growth and decreased poverty. H&M’s presence can have a positive influence, but of course they are aware that there is a limit to that influence and they see the value of positive co-operations to take it to the next level.
But the situation has not been fully remediated: half of the western companies that had their goods produced in the factories in the Bangladesh disaster have to date refused to donate money to the fund set up for the families of the victims. A month ago Primark was the eighth company to give money to the fund according to uniglobalunion.org. Mango is another company that has paid – but to date Benetton and Walmart are two companies that still refuse to pay. And many American companies are reluctant to sign the Bangladesh Accord, because differing laws in the United States allow greater legal liability than in Europe, so those companies are working out their own plan, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
In the end, the actual power to change lies in the hands of us consumers and on the values we base our purchases. Has awareness of worker’s conditions changed the way you buy clothes?