Six months on from the factory collapse in Bangladesh, where over 1100 people died, and the garment industry is scrabbling to pick up the pieces. Over 100 companies have now signed up to an agreement on monitoring factory fire and building safety in Bangladesh, and international efforts are being made to sort out compensation for the workers. But will this mean that all is well with the capitalist paradise again? Can we all go back to buying cheap clothes without guilt, telling ourselves that jobs are good for their economy and cheap goods for ours?

Let us go back to six months ago and revisit the scene of the building collapse. A few days before the collapse a crack appeared in the side of the Rana Plaza building – workers from all the businesses in the 8 story building were sent home while the building was surveyed. The owner of the building was told by experts that there was a serious issue, yet workers from the garment factories were commanded to return to work the next day. This the garment workers did (and workers from the bank on the ground floor did not), then during the morning rush, disaster struck. Why the garment workers returned and the bank workers did not is the essential point of this story. The reason is economic.

The minimum wage for a factory worker in Bangladesh is currently £23.91 a month – a pittance. Women and men working in the Rana Plaza clothing factories couldn’t afford to miss a day’s work, when it was blatantly obvious to all that their workplace was a disaster waiting to happen. Even with huge amounts of overtime paid at a slightly better rate, these women and men live in slum conditions and struggle to feed their families. A living wage enough to allow a family to live in dignity is more like £220.20 a month – over 8 times the minimum wage. This sum demonstrates that the economic freedom which global capitalism preaches is a pie in the sky dream.

Living on the breadline also means that the survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster have gone from economic resource, to burden overnight. With no jobs, they are no longer able to support themselves and their families and many have been evicted from their homes. Economic freedom is at the root of the puzzle of how to fix the garment industry. A workforce that is able to change jobs, to improve their lot, to mobilise and demand better conditions, is a free workforce, and one that is an asset to the businesses they participate in. Instead, global capitalism has Bangladesh (and Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia….) under the thumb. As global buyers seek ever lower prices, wages and conditions get squeezed.

Workers aren’t free – they are economic prisoners kept down by an industry where the money ever flows upwards. The way to fix this isn’t ever greater top down monitoring to make sure factories meet western standards, but empowering the people who work in these factories to be agents of change. Which starts with pay. So why is no-one talking about this? Whereas companies have begrudgingly signed up to a programme to repair falling down buildings, as soon as campaigners mention wages above the minimum and cost per unit going up, deathly silence falls. For too long companies have hidden behind easy CSR initiatives: Recycled paper bags, reused plastics, worker hotline numbers. Living wages are the central piece of the solution. An accord on wages? Long overdue.

*According to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance latest figures: http://www.cleanclothes.org/livingwage/calculating-a-living-wage

Anna McMullen

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