At the site of the devastating collapse of a 8-storey building housing garment factories in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013/ Photo by World Vision
As Australians prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of a tragic loss of life at Gallipoli Cove, another sombre anniversary will be marked this week – with far less fanfare. The collapse of a garment manufacturing plant at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh killed over 1100 workers in April 2013; 140 workers are still unaccounted for.
These numbers may seem minuscule compared to the 8,000 Australians who died in the Dardanelles a century ago. This loss of over a thousand lives has not been marked around the world by monuments, or politicians laying wreaths. Whilst many NGOs and consumers have lobbied companies to take action – resulting in some measures to prevent a tragedy like this happening again – it seems to me that the past two years have been marked by legal wrangling and public relations double talk. Some international corporations have sought to distance themselves from further obligations to the workers and their families. People who suffered so much from failing safety standards at the manufacturing plant are still to receive adequate compensation for their loss.
As recently as last month, a petition containing over 1.2 million signatures was still attracting support from angry and horrified consumers around the world. It’s inspiring to know that two years on, people are still angry enough to act on this issue. It’s proof that consumers do not want low-cost clothing at any cost, that there is a shared humanity that declares at the very least that clothing shouldn’t kill or harm.
I was horrified to realise that brands I may have bought in the past, the shops I may have spent money in, could wash their hands of their obligations one more time and hold up basic compensation for these workers. It made me angry all over again, and forced me to look at what changes I had made to my life since this event two years earlier.
At the time of the Rana Plaza collapse I shared my horror on social media, like many, when the news hit. I read advice on whether it was right to channel that horror into a boycott of the brands that were involved, and learned so much more about the importance of labour rights, particularly for workers in poor countries. In short, I did what I could to make sure I made better choices in my day to day life. I didn’t want my previously unthinking support of bargain brands to contribute to another Rana Plaza in another part of the world where workers’ lives are not valued.
I hope I’ve succeeded in using my consumer dollar better. I don’t imagine I have saved the universe or indeed brought evil to an end. But I do think I am a better educated, more self-aware consumer. I ask questions of stores willing to discuss their social justice practices. I try to read the growing number of newsletters and blogs like Otter and Good on You, which keep consumers updated about ethical brands trying to remedy generations of supply chain ignorance. I try to share this information with others – not to harass people, but simply to honour the possibility that they, like me, may not have known what was happening in places like Bangladesh to people who were just trying to feed and clothe their family.
My actions are not a carved or sombre monument to the dead. No politician will scramble for a photo with me to mark this week’s other anniversary. But, two years on, I hope my newfound knowledge is one small way the lives of 1100 people are not forgotten, and one of many ways I can speak up for thousands more workers, at risk from ignorant and unsafe corporate practices designed to take advantage of my ignorance as a 21st century consumer.
What you can do