In the wake of the devastating building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed at least 350 people last week, a British antipoverty charity has demanded that U.K. retailers who depend upon cheap foreign workers reform their labor practices and safety standards in these facilities.
The destroyed factory complex in Dhaka once housed thousands of laborers who produced cheap garments for such prominent British firms as Primark Stores Ltd., Matalan Ltd., Mango and other brands.
“Take action now and demand these U.K. high street brands … take responsibility for this tragedy by paying full compensation to the workers and commit to action to ensure disasters like this become a thing of the past,” said the antipoverty campaigner War On Want (WOW) in a statement.
Protesters have already assembled outside Primark flagship store in Central London demanding action to improve the work conditions in places like Dhaka and “safeguard the life of these workers.”
Primark, Matalan and Mango generate huge profits off the backs of workers in factories in impoverished countries like Bangladesh, WOW asserted.
In response to the tragedy in Bangladesh, Primark said in a statement that it was “shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident,” adding that the company has been engaged for several years with NGOs and other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry’s approach to factory standards.
Primark also said it "accepts all its responsibilities in this disaster," is providing assistance in the region, and will take further steps “in due course."
But the problem of the exploitation of cheap labor won't be fixed with condolences and assistance.
WOW indicated that Bangladesh is essentially a huge sweatshop for Western companies. On the whole, some 3.5 million workers toil in almost 5,000 garment factories to produce export goods principally for the European and North American markets.
The garment industry is believed to generate about four-fifths of Bangladeshi total export revenue, making it a crucial and indispensable part of the local economy.
The majority of garment workers in Bangladesh earn little more than the minimum wage, set at 3,000 taka ($38.50) per month – the living wage in Bangladesh is estimated at 5,000 taka per month, according to WOW.
The vast majority of these workers (85 percent) are women.
In addition to meager pay and unsafe work conditions, Bangladeshi garment workers toil as much as 14 to 16 hours per day. Even worse, the buildings they work in are susceptible to fires: WOW indicated that more than 400 workers have been killed and many thousands injured by workplace fires in Bangladesh factories since 1990.
Still, grinding poverty in an overpopulated country compels many Bangladeshis to work in such appalling conditions.
As Muhammad Q. Islam wrote for the BDnews24 news network of Bangladesh: "We still have a 47 million strong army of very poor people who will be willing to take all the risks that culminate in injury and death, both at home and abroad, to improve their lot. Our economic policies explicitly rely on continued availability of this workforce to fuel our economic growth."
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.