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A Heavy Price to Pay for Cheap Labour

Want to update your wardrobe with something fashionable but affordable? It’s easy to do. In the UK we have seen a considerable increase in companies offering extremely cheap clothing; some are made ethically and without exploitation. But if the high fashion, low cost jeans in your bag are one of the 1.5 billion garments sewn by around 40 million people working in 250,000 factories across countries designated by the UN as the world's least developed, the human cost is simply too high.

We have seen tragedy after tragedy associated with poor work conditions in the Asian clothing industry. In December 2010 100 Bangladeshi workers died in a fire. Last November, a fire broke out in a factory in a Dhaka suburb, killing 110 people. Just over a week ago the Rana Plaza, a garment factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed killing at least 400 people. To add to the rescue problems, fire broke out as rescuers were trying to free survivors, causing confusion and adding to the human death toll. What’s worse, this particular disaster was completely avoidable. The day before the building collapsed, many workers in the factory had expressed concern about the cracks in the building but had been ordered back to work because (at an earlier stage) the factory had already been inspected and passed as safe.

Campaign group Labour Behind the Label say that it is a common occurrence for buildings to have illegal floors added and in consequence many of them are quite literally death traps, often with no proper escape routes. But when people literally have no other work, there is no system of social support and they are starving, they are driven to work in unacceptably dangerous conditions for pitifully low wages.

The debate about the cost in human lives is not new, but this latest incident has rightly raised it on the international agenda. The ability to produce cheap clothes does not automatically mean running a sweat shop. Vietnam, which produces clothes for fashion industry giants like Zara, Mango and H&M has strong labour laws. It is trying to create a healthy sustainable garment industry which does not rely on exploitation of workers. Wages are generally three times higher than in Bangladesh.

The European Union announced last week Wednesday that it is considering “appropriate action” to encourage an improvement in working conditions in Bangladesh factories and discussions have already begun.

Compared to a lot of countries, the UK has very strong foundation of employment law rights, and health and safety. Safety is not seen as sexy and often managers turn a blind eye or push important but non-profit-making matters to the bottom of the agenda. We have heard some unbelievably stupid utterances in the name of safety in recent years, for example, children having to wear crash helmets to take part in an egg and spoon race. How on earth did so many helmet-less people from my generation taking part in the extreme sport of egg and spoon racing survive the hazards? Beats me! (Sorry – couldn’t resist).

But if large cracks appeared in the walls of the building where you work, you’d expect the manager in charge to have the wit and proper sense of responsibility to investigate straight away and take action to safeguard anyone who was on the site. Employers are under an obligation to provide a safe system of work for their employees. The appalling tragedy of Rana Plaza should have pricked the conscience of anyone who doesn’t take safety seriously. One hopes that this will prompt not just debate but action. Every cloud has a silver lining and horrible as this whole disaster is, I hope that it will be the catalyst for actions which will create a safer working environment and better wages for workers. It can be done and at a cost which would result in almost negligible price increases for consumers; there is a successful working model and it won’t cost the earth. What are we waiting for?

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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