Rana Plaza collapsed. Photo by Abdullah Ajmol

Almost a year ago a Dhaka factory suddenly collapsed killing 1,138 people. Tansy Hoskins looks at how we can support the struggle to prevent another Rana Plaza

The 24th April marks the anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1,138 people were killed and thousands more injured. The building was a death trap into which several thousand garment workers, mostly young women, were unwillingly driven at the behest of factory bosses racing to make deadlines for multinational corporations.

Retailers who have admitted to using the Rana Plaza factory include Benetton, Bon Marché, Mango, Matalan, Primark and Walmart, but hundreds more companies use low-cost Bangladeshi factories, including upscale brands like Armani, Hugo Boss, and Ralph Lauren.

Following the collapse, international Trade Unions Uni Global Union and IndustriALL worked with Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers Federation to draft the ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’. They told retailers: this time, you sign our deal. The Accord now covers 1,500 factories across Bangladesh. It is worker led, legally binding and forces corporations to disclose which factories they use, in short it is a game-changer.

Yet conditions are still seriously unsafe; corporations like Benetton and Matalan have refused to pay a penny in compensation to victims or their families; and US corporations led by Walmart/Asda and Gap have refused to touch the Accord and have tried to sabotage it using their own corporate puff agreement.

This is the context of the 24th April: the corporate mass murder of 1,138 people and the disabling of thousands more and a hard fought worker-led struggle to change conditions and prevent another atrocity. For people outside of Bangladesh the question is: how to support this worker led struggle to prevent another Rana Plaza?

The answer should be simple to gage, and yet it has become obscured as the wrong people are blamed for Rana Plaza, the culprits escape responsibility, and talk of capitalism is replaced by that of consumerism.

Myth 1: Exploitation is the fault of consumers.

Reading most of the dialogue around Rana Plaza feels like being sat at a pantomime with everyone looking unawares in one direction whilst the evil villain creeps up behind them. Much of the media is acting as an echo-chamber for Governments who blame the weakest members of society to hide their own wrongdoings.

Rana PlazaIn the UK the wrong people are blamed for the economic crisis, the finger is pointed at asylum seekers and people on benefits rather than tax dodging corporations and the banking sector that caused the crisis. In fashion, fourteen year old Primark customers are blamed for the existence of sweatshops instead of the corporations that force such low wages onto people, and instead of capitalism – an economic system with exploitation and profit in its very DNA.

At Rana Plaza workers were producing around 100 pieces of clothing an hour. ‘Fast fashion’ is a very deliberate economic strategy that relies on hundreds of thousands of short life units being sold at a very low cost without end of season sales and with stock changing up to 52 times per year. Multinational corporations deliberately choose countries where they can have this stock produced at the lowest possible cost, they work with authoritarian regimes to ensure there are no workers rights or dissent to disrupt their profit margins. Huge reserve armies of labour have been created via colonialism and neoliberalism.

Clothes that are produced in this system are desecrating the planet, are full of toxic chemicals and are of such low quality that they need to be constantly replaced. They are pushed onto people through continuous advertising and unreachable beauty ideals. With fashion so linked to modernity and competency fashionable clothing is also an economic and social need for people, something that has been intensified by economic crisis and job insecurity. 50 million Americans live below the poverty line and some 100 million more exist on a low income, in Britain 1 million people are using food banks – telling people not to shop at the few retailers they can physically afford is cruel and pointless. The cruelty of capitalism is not the fault of those caught in the web, we are dealing with a fashion system designed to produce billions in corporate profits for small groups of unaccountable shareholders.

Myth 2: But if we all just shopped differently we’d change the world…

British Vogue recently quoted Livia Firth as stating: “If we imagine we are voting every time we buy something, and we use our purchase power, then things will change.” Yet there are several reasons why this is a very long way from an acceptable idea of democracy.

Choice is largely a myth for millions of people and there is no level playing field allowing one person one vote. We live in a world where the 85 richest people in the world control more wealth than the bottom 50% of the global population. We cannot match them pound for pound. Especially since those with the most dollars are the least inclined to change. Even if we all clubbed together (including the more socially conscious movie stars) there is no chance of matching the wealth of the five siblings of the Walton family who control Walmart. They have personal fortunes of $18 billion. Each.

Democracy is premised on the idea that those being voted for are accountable. This is simply not the case with corporations who are accountable only to their shareholders. The ‘people as wallets’ idea is the rhetoric of democracy hiding the fact that actually consumers have very little power and that capitalism cannot be tamed or ameliorated. It replaces the idea of social movements and the struggle with shopping, and collectively brainwashes us into thinking we are reliant on corporations for change.

Engels pointed out in 1845: “The middle classes have a truly extraordinary conception of society. They really believe that all human beings…have a real existence only if they make money or help to make it.” We are being taught to forget that the way people can and do collectively change the world is through citizenship and labour power.

Those advocating shopping differently as the solution also need to address two other issues. After 25 or more years the “ethical fashion” market accounts for approximately 1% of the global apparel market. Some small brands are developing progressive means of clothing production, but exploitation is rampant and Nike and Gap are still getting away with murder (literally) – we must do more than tinker with the deckchairs on the Titanic. Secondly workers in Bangladesh do not want boycotts of the factories they work in and it adds insult to injury if their factories shut down. The point of campaigning in this area is to improve conditions for workers in Bangladesh – they have to be listened to.

Arguing that change hinges on consumerism only benefits one section of society – the corporations who get to hide behind the facade of democracy, pretend they are friendly, and shift blame for their wrongdoings onto teenage girls in Croydon.

What can be done?

The only way to change the world – the only thing that has ever worked – is the creation of social movements powerful enough to take on sources of oppression. For this reason people should become involved in trade unions and social movements in their home country and work towards a fairer world. Specific to the Rana Plaza and the fashion industry here are UK based campaigns worth getting involved in which are working with the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh:

  1. Be at the Rana Plaza Oxford Street protest on Thursday 24th April (organised by War on Want & Labour Behind the Label).
  2. Get involved with War on Want’s campaign to make Gap sign the Bangladesh Accord.
  3. Get involved with Labour Behind the Label to fight for compensation for the Rana Plaza workers and their families.