Laying blame on big retailers for Bangladesh tragedy is far too simplistic

A thousand or so workers were caught in the five garment factories operating in an illegal eight-storey complex that collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A thousand or so workers were caught in the five garment factories operating in an illegal eight-storey complex that collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

They were being paid as little as $38 a month by contractors working for middlemen occupying a supply chain for some of the world’s largest retailers — including JC Penney, Cato Fashions, Benetton, Primark and others, such as Canadian retailer Loblaw.

But, as we are told in workplaces right here in Red Deer, they and we all ultimately work for the consumer.

It’s human nature to assign blame in a disaster such as this. We blame Mohammed Sohel Rana, who owns Rana Plaza, an eight-storey factory complex that was only designed to reach five storeys.

We blame the engineering firms that drew up the blueprints for the three storeys added — against building codes.

We blame the factory operators in a $20-billion Bangladesh garment industry that is based on inhuman working conditions imposed on 14-year-old girls.

We blame the global retailers who obviously know what these sweatshops are like, yet constantly squeeze their suppliers for discounts that make conditions worse.

But who can resist a T-shirt on sale for $5? Or a pair of jeans for $30? Obviously, not us.

But even some top-end brands that sell for much more come from factories not unlike the ones in Rana Plaza.

Aman Singh is editorial director of CSRWire, a website for corporate social responsibility news. He studies and reports on issues around consumer choices, the supply chain blame game, and standards for global garment production.

He himself admits it’s difficult for consumers to track through the supply chain labyrinth and to determine if items on store shelves were ethically produced.

Even at our conscientious best, the workers of the world cannot rely on us to vote with our purchases for a fair global workplace.

He told the Christian Science Monitor that only the top of the command chain — huge retailers like Walmart and others — can enforce ethical standards for their suppliers. Only they are powerful enough to say “my way or the highway” to their suppliers, and mean it.

The United Nations is attempting to document standards that suppliers can enforce globally.

These would include a global definition of child labour. In many countries, you’re an adult worker at 14. There’s also an hours-of-work standard, health and safety standards and other benchmarks that would create a globally-recognized seal for ethical business standards. Create a label and put it on products consumers could look for.

Right now, it’s up to individual companies to do this on their own. Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op, for instance, is one retailer that insists on factory inspections to guarantee their products were ethically sourced.

But even that is difficult. You can inspect a factory where shirts are made, and everyone is paid a reasonable wage and has acceptable working conditions.

But who made the fabric? For shoes, the uppers may be made in one country, the soles in another, to be assembled in yet another.

And these companies operate in a global consumer market where price trumps all other considerations.

Yet, if we believe in a capitalist, consumer-driven ethic, consumers cannot distance themselves from the supply chain. To know is to be responsible.

Here’s what we know. At least 350 people are known to be dead in the factory collapse. About 650 survived, and the onsite amputations needed to remove crushed limbs made the clinics look like abattoirs.

Just five months ago, 111 people died in a Bangladesh garment factory fire, where the fire escapes were bolted shut.

These are the kinds of places where much of our clothing is made.

If consumers cannot easily determine the sourcing of items, we can at least insist that retailers respect our demands to act ethically, and sign on to an enforceable standard, whose seal can appear on the stuff we buy.

Aman Singh, for one, suggests prices may rise as a result, but the retail price of a pair of sneakers you buy for even one full day’s wages represents a factory worker’s full wages for two or three months.

Global retailers cannot claim they didn’t know Rana Plaza was unsafe. In places where workers earn less than $2 a day, they’re probably all unsafe.

But neither can we. Knowing that makes us responsible, too.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.