“Everywhere was dark. It was like laying down in the grave,” says Mona (names have been changed throughout to protect identities), a victim of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. “We thought it was the end of our lives and we prayed to God, ‘O God help us.'”
In April, 1,127 people went to work and never came back. The walls of their workplace literally crumbled away around them, trapping them beneath the ruins. “There was still the smell of death in the air a couple of days after the collapse,” says Robert, a BMS World Mission worker in Bangladesh.
The factory disaster made headline news around the world. We know it was a tragedy, it shouldn’t have happened and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen again. And while it took place on another continent, it was as Western as a pair of skinny jeans.
The thousands caught in the catastrophe were working in garment factories housed in the Rana Plaza complex in Dhaka – factories supplying clothes to some major United Kingdom clothing chains.
The employees were ordered to work that day despite telltale cracks in the walls. Those who survived the ordeal are traumatized, many of them hopelessly trapped in darkness for hours.
Jyoti Ratna, a BMS partner in Bangladesh, visited some of the victims in the hospital.
“They shared their terrible experiences with us,” she says. “Some had lost their hands or their legs. Most of them were women. I met one woman who lost her husband and sister. She has a little baby girl. She doesn’t know what to do.”
The collapse has driven major fashion chains to reassess the safety of their supply factories and has forced the Bangladeshi government into talks about improving conditions for its garment workers.
As Christians, we, too, need to be moved to act against injustices in the garment industry.
Robert and Luke are BMS workers seeking to improve factory conditions in Bangladesh. Consulting for international brands, most of the factories they visit are top of the line, but there are always exceptions.
“Sometimes our guys are just glad to get out,” says Luke. “It may be extremely hot or extremely cramped, there may be mishandling of volatile chemicals; everything can be wrong.”
It’s easy to assume that, while terrible, the collapse is not our problem. But a little research shows that part of the blame must lie with us. Purchasing cheap clothes and buying into disposable fashion trends has consequences, but sadly they’re consequences we rarely see.
Have I been buying clothes from companies that mistreat their employees? Should Bangladeshi blouses and boleros be banned from my wardrobe?
Robert believes the worst thing I can do is to stop buying things made in Bangladesh. “If the West stops buying things from here, it will make a bad situation 10 times worse. The garment industry has empowered millions of women,” he says.
So, if some garment manufacturers are undeniably exploiting and endangering its workers and yet millions still depend on the garment industry for employment, what should we do?
These questions have led me to the “Good Shopping Guide,” which offers a comprehensive guide to ethical retail. But will it really make a difference if we choose to avoid purchasing from some clothing suppliers?
William Sankey, founder of the Ethical Company Organization, which produces the “Good Shopping Guide,” is convinced it does.
“Our decisions absolutely make a difference,” he says. “Every single penny you spend is like a voting slip. Choosing to buy ethical goods and services whilst being noisy about brands you are choosing to boycott gets noticed.”
William, Robert and Luke all agree that it is those of us in the West who can make the much-needed difference by making conscious decisions to shop ethically, and by writing letters to CEOs of shops and to our representatives to let them know that we care about the conditions of garment workers.
The BMS team in Bangladesh is making a huge impact, too.
“Although the only real answer is to build everything anew using international standards,” says Luke, “our civil engineer knows that by doing some simple things, we can go from them being 10 percent safe to being 90 percent safe. If he can do that, why wouldn’t he?”
By improving the standards of buildings, lives can be saved. And by coupling this with a concerted effort to advocate for garment workers, the face of the industry can be transformed, changing the lives of workers in the garment trade in Bangladesh and beyond.
There’s no quick fix for the thousands whose lives were turned upside down by the Rana Plaza tragedy.
But if our small acts can help prevent it from happening again, I’m prepared to give it a try. Perhaps we really can find a way to be fashionable and fair trade.