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Thursday, 23 May 2013

Will the terrible accident in Bangladesh finally trigger some positive change in the international fashion and footwear industry?! Let’s not be overenthusiastic!

Hi, it’s me again.

Today, I publish my first blog in more than one month. For no other particular reason than physical and mental exhaustion, I had to stop blogging for a while.

What I initially reckoned to become a short break of a few days, turned into a month of ‘total abstinence’ from using my beloved computer. This happened, in spite of a substantial number of Dutch national holidays during this month, which offered me all the possibilities in the world to write.

I had the time, the opportunity and ample subjects to blog, but my mind showed a ‘blur’ when it came to inspiration for stories and de facto writing. I regret it, but that’s the way it was. With this blog, I hope to celebrate my ‘return to the typewriter’ with you, my dear readers.

Of course, this period-without-blogging didn’t mean that I stopped following the news and the daily business. We have had our share of (inter)national quarterly results of the leading companies and international macro-economic data, hovering between ‘promising’ and ‘extremely poor’.

We have had the European leaders discussing the pros and cons of an international banking union. However, we also saw the German representatives,  who put the handbrake firmly on the decision-making process, concerning this banking union.  And we scrupulously followed France, desperately trying to outsource its massive domestic, economic problems to the EU and the European Central Bank ECB

We saw France and Germany running the gauntlet on a pan-European approach against the massive youth unemployment within the Euro-zone and the EU. But we also knew that we can only believe in such plans at the time that these plans are actually executed and start to show real results. This time is not now yet…

And finally, we saw how the minutes of Ben Bernanke and his latest Federal Reserve meeting led to a panic reaction in the Far East and Europe, with especially the Japanese Nikkei index showing a mindboggling 7% rate-drop today.

Still, there was one story, which totally stood out to me during this last month. A story, which developed in its gruesome details and massive loss of life. This was the Bangladesh building collapse disaster, which claimed the lives of more than 1127 workers in the vast Bangladesh clothing and footwear industry.

During the last 8 months, we have had the two massive factory fires in Pakistan and the likewise, massive factory fire in Bangladesh, which claimed many hundreds of lives combinedly. And then I don’t even mention the numerous smaller incidents. After these incidents, I hoped that we had hit rock-bottom, when it came to work-related misery in the low-wage countries. Sadly, we didn’t…

On April 24, the eight-story Rana Plaza Building in Savar, Bangladesh (a suburb of capital Dhaka) collapsed, under a structural pressure it couldn’t stand anymore. This terrible event happened, just days after the occurrence of various anomalies, like expanding cracks in the walls and strange noises from within the structure of the building.

These obvious warning signals have deliberately been ignored by the inhabitants of the building – a.o. a number of factories in the fashion industry –, who were clearly more concerned with their production targets and deadlines, than with the safety of their hundreds of workers. As a grave consequence of this almost criminal ostrich view, the world witnessed one of the worst work-related catastrophes ever.

The results of this accident have been devastating: one month after the disaster happened, the counter stopped at 1127 dead workers and countless grieving families, who lost their family members and loved ones and (probably) their main source of income. Some of these families are now facing a life of sheer poverty.

The disaster had seemingly been caused by the outrageous combination of a poorly built and extremely dangerous, high-rise office building and vastly overcrowded factories, operating from within this building. Investigation showed that extremely poor building materials have been used, while ‘every rule in the book’ has been breached by the owners.

Other incidents, like the ones mentioned earlier in this article, had been largely ignored by western companies. However, the Savar incident did send shockwaves through Bangladesh itself and through the western world, as the sheer loss of life was simply too big to overlook.

Outraged workers hit the streets everywhere in Bangladesh. They protested against their working situation and extremely poor payments, which sometimes led to circumstances close to modern slavery. They also protested against the totally failed safety regulations and virtually non-existant labour inspections in their country, leaving them under jeopardy of large and lethal working accidents. They demanded better payments, more job security, fewer working hours and more safety.

At last, the notion set in at the boardrooms of some leading fashion and footwear companies in Europe and the US, that something had to be done about the labour circumstances in the low-wage countries. Otherwise, the situation in Bangladesh could massively backfire at them, eventually. Everybody in the industry and outside it knew that there is a blatant correlation between the outrageously poor labour and safety regulations in the low-wage countries, like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, and the occurrence of deadly accidents, like Savar and the Pakistani factory fires.

Cynically speaking, the poor regulation and non-existent labour inspections were the main reason for the attractiveness of these countries: it enabled production of clothing and footwear at even lower prices than in other low-wage countries, like f.i. China, Romania and Turkey. Small accidents were collateral damage, which could mostly be ignored. Every discouraged worker leaving such sweatshops, attracted ten others, who all wanted to take over his job.

However, this Savar incident became too big to ignore; even for the thick-skulled people in the boardrooms of world-famous fashion brands and leading chains of fashion shops in Europe and the US.

Since Savar, already 31 companies have signed a covenant, which spurs action against the poor labour and safety circumstances in the Bangladeshian sweatshops: the so-called ‘Clean Clothes’  campaign. Among these companies were: Tchibo, PVH (Tommy Hilfiger / Calvin Klein), H&M, Zara, Mango, C&A, Marks&Spencer and Benetton (for the complete list, you can check out

This is good news, right?! Well, it might be, but I’m not so sure about it yet…

I am afraid that ‘the usual suspects’ only pay lip service to the good cause, now that the heat is on them after the Savar incident. However, they might soon return to business-as-usual, when this all has blown over!

Simply, because the leading brands and fashion chains need the extremely low prices for clothing and footwear, in order to keep their profitability upright. The millions of workers in the low-wage countries cannot miss the jobs and even the offensive payments of these companies are better than receiving nothing at all.

The governments in these countries will maintain their policy of looking the other way, probably spurred by the millions of dollars in briberies and kickbacks they receive. So, the system remains intact…

In one of my first blogs, I wrote about Adidas, which at the time left China in favor of Laos and Cambodia, due to the soaring wages in the People’s Republic.

Sadly, companies like Adidas and others need probably more than one collapsed building and factory fire to change their attitude. Therefore the consumers in the western world must realize, that in the end THEY decide about where their fashion, available at bargain prices, will be manufactured in the near future.

To finish with one tell-tale example: at the same evening that the 8 o’clock news was filled with the grim reports from Savar, Bangladesh, a commercial of Zeeman (a Dutch fashion discounter) was broadcasted. The message of this commercial was: “At Zeeman, you can buy a €50 dress for just €5”.

The company didn’t mention, of course, that – figuratively speaking – this dress was made from the blood and misery of numerous Bangladeshian and Pakistani workers. 

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