I think to some extent we all know what we’re doing when we shop at bargain stores. People talk about the ‘guilt’ of stepping into a Primark or Walmart, because we know that things shouldn’t be that cheap. We know that something’s gone wrong somewhere along the line.
The trouble is, it’s often not that obvious who is losing out. Some factory worker in some third-world country. While browsing in Primark, if you were ever to stop and think about that faceless person, you’d probably be distracted by a £3 t-shirt and move on with your life.
Occasionally, but not occasionally enough, something happens which dumps that worker right into your life. 386 workers, to be precise, if you don’t count the 900 who are still unaccounted for. I’m talking, of course, about the horrific building collapse in Dhaka which has led to the death of hundreds of Bangladeshi garment-makers – but I could easily talk about the 289 who died in Karachi, Pakistan, or the 117 in Tazreen, all within the past year.
While Primark and Walmart are not the only corporations implicated in these disasters, I’ve singled them out because of their direct involvement in the two most recent accidents. Primark occupied a floor of the Dhaka factory, and for their part they have agreed to pay compensation to the people affected by this tragedy.
Walmart, however, claimed that their supplier had sub-contracted the work to the Tazreen factory, in the outskirts of Dhaka, without their knowledge and refused to pay compensation. So, men, women and children who worked all hours of the day to earn barely enough money to feed their families were left with traumatic injuries and no money to feed their families.
Both companies have also drawn the line at introducing better safety measures by refusing to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement. Why? Because it’s too costly, according to Walmart. And yet: “We firmly believe factory owners must meet our standards for suppliers and we recognise the cost of meeting those standards will be part of the cost of the goods we buy,” said a Walmart spokesman.
By the way, let’s not forget that Michael Duke, Walmart’s CEO, awarded himself an $18.1 million salary last year. That would be enough to pay the families of the deceased 198 years’ wages each.
See, when a tragedy like this comes around, denial is the first defence. The issue is ‘complex’. If unsafe sweatshops didn’t exist, these people would have no jobs. Bangladesh’s cheap labour must go hand in hand with lax safety regulations if corporations are to keep their prices down.
Not true. The Worker’s Rights Consortium has put together a report that the cost of bringing 4,500 factories across Bangladesh up to Western safety standards would translate to around 6p per garment. Six pence.
Of course, this would only be true if every Western clothes shop were on board, and that isn’t going to happen while giants like Walmart and Primark believe that their unique selling point requires them to trample factory workers’ rights underfoot.
One of the reasons for the high death toll in these accidents is that doors and windows were locked to prevent workers from escaping. This doesn’t sit well with the notion of workers’ rights, and brings up the question of how many people in the factory were there out of choice.
I guess we’ll never know how many of the dead had been trafficked into Dhaka, or lured in with the false promise of a good job. What we do know, from the US State Department’s Trafficking In Persons Report 2012, is that trafficking from rural areas to cities for forced labour is common in Bangladesh. We also know that at least one per cent of Pakistan’s population are currently in bonded labour.
Put these facts together, and we are facing the sickening situation that hundreds of people, after being forced to work in unbearable conditions for years, were crushed or burned to death because some corporation didn’t want to pay for fire escapes. And why is that? So that we could save 6p.
What can be done, then? Stop the Traffik, a global movement working through individuals, communities and organisations to fight the global sale of people, believes that independent certification is a crucial first step. It is working for chocolate, and it can work for cotton. Add in consumer choice and you have a powerful combination. We mustn’t forget this terrible tragedy; we must use our voice and vote with our money to remind corporations that forced labour anywhere in the world is unacceptable. They cannot be allowed to forget this.
This article first appeared on the Stop the Traffik blog on 30 April. For more information about what you can do in the fight against human trafficking, visit their website which is packed full of resources, information and actions which you can take.
Stop the Traffik also work with businesses to make a difference in the private sector, specifically focusing on the supply chain side of human trafficking.