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Labour reforms come at a cost

Horrific factory collapse lead to rethinking the true cost of cheap clothes, but it could also spell lost jobs.
Last modified: 23 May 2013 18:50

I've spent the day reporting live from a rickety rooftop opposite what remains of Rana Plaza.

An occasional stench reminds me that there are other remains here too, buried under piles of rubble and tangles of fabric.

Apart from that, where the eight-storey complex once stood, there is a watery gaping hole in the ground.

Looking at that hole and the silent crowds that come and go, gawking at it, it's impossible not to imagine those awful moments a month ago when the whole structure came down. Nervous workers who'd been ordered back inside despite giant cracks in the wall, suddenly entombed in blackness and dust. Some alive and afraid; many hundreds dead or dying.

18-year-old garment worker Janaat, an injured survivor, told me that as she waited to die she thought about her parents, wondering if they knew where she was. A man outside showed me a picture of his dead wife. Everyone knows someone, he said.

Thinking about these things, imagining the agony and fear, it's also impossible not to feel a sense of rage at the way these people are treated - exploited - in their millions, in thousands of garment factories, in the name of profit and dirt-cheap t-shirts and jeans.

However, I have absorbed and understood something that should make western lefties and activist groups think again.

The millions of unskilled, low paid, maltreated garment workers in this country do at least have jobs and incomes in an industry that has turned this country's economic prospects around. A few years ago they had nothing.

Janaat told me that thanks to her job, and her brother's, her family of 8 has a secure place to live, two meals a day to eat.

Her job is gone now, lost in the rubble of Rana Plaza. She'll look for work when her injuries have healed. Many of those who lost loved ones will have lost key breadwinners as well.

And that's the point: this industry needs to survive, so its workers and their families can survive.

There is no excuse for the treatment many of them receive. But its no use boycotting Primark products, or Gap or Walmart, just for the sake of it.

Foreign companies and retailers who profit from Bangladeshi toil must do their bit to make conditions better. Consumers in the west must make sure of it.

Shop smart. Go on buying your $5 garments from companies that are prepared to do the right thing. Punish ones that aren't. But avoid the knee-jerk response that does nothing more than help drive families like Janaat's back into extreme poverty.