SubScribe: The women who died for our £1.50 T-shirts Google+

Thursday 25 April 2013

The women who died for our £1.50 T-shirts

How about a little red sewing machine to guide shoppers?

A friend contacted SubScribe yesterday to ask about the Telegraph's web coverage of the Dhaka factory collapse, asking why it had focused on Primark and was there a vendetta against the company. Had someone done something to upset the editor? 
For a journalist, it seemed natural that the Telegraph had emphasised the relevance of the disaster to a British audience by pointing up the link with such a successful business. But it was equally interesting to note that brands such as Benetton, Mango and Monsoon also had connections with the building. So how is the shopper supposed to know? That thought is what prompted this non-media post.

A T-shirt for less than the price of half a dozen eggs? How can that be possible?
A Christmas turkey that costs more than your party dress? That’s crazy!
An entire school uniform for less than a couple of lamb chops? Surely that can’t be right?

Yes, it’s possible; yes, it’s crazy; yes, it’s true – and no, it isn’t right.
It’s possible because we have outlawed battery hens, but we have done little or nothing to outlaw battery women.

We pat ourselves on the back as we reach for the free-range eggs, turning up our noses at those produced by caged birds; we wince at the price as we pick up our bronze bird for the Christmas table but pay up, and we check for the tractor symbol on our pack of Welsh lamb chump chops. We’re good, right-on people, concerned for animal welfare.

Then we jump in our cars and head for Westfield or Lakeside or the Trafford Centre, leaving our consciences behind. We roar around Primark or Matalan, filling our net baskets to overflowing with  jeans, shirts, dresses, jumpers, nighties, even bed linen and towels that we don’t need because we can’t resist the ‘bargains’. We tell ourselves that these things are so cheap that it won’t matter if they don’t fit or match the wallpaper – and then we find at the checkout that we’ve spent a hundred and fifty quid on a load of toot that will clog our cupboards, unworn, until we have a massive clearout and take most of it to the charity shop with the tags still on.
Been there, done that, got the T-shirt ­ - the £1.50 sole survivor of the shopping trip. Well that was a real bargain wasn’t it?

So if this £1.50 T-shirt has ended up costing me £150 (plus petrol), how much did it cost others further down the supply chain? The retailer has to build, buy or rent his premises, light the shop, pay the staff, pay taxes and pay accountants to minimise them. To do that, he needs to turn a good profit on his merchandise, so the chances are he won’t have paid more than 50p for that T-shirt. As a big player, our retailer will probably have negotiated directly with the manufacturer. Let’s move on to him.

The manufacturer is based on the Indian sub-continent, where the raw materials for textile making are abundant and labour is cheap. The seamstress who made my T-shirt is required to produce dozens, scores, possibly even hundreds in a long working day. For this she is paid about 75p.

On Tuesday someone noticed that there were cracks in the factory where she works. The safety authorities came out and inspected it and ordered the building to be evacuated and closed. So our seamstress had a day off?

No. Her bosses looked at the building, declared it safe and ordered the women back to work. Fearing the sack, they went, taking their children with them – to be looked after in a crèche on another floor.

Within hours the building had collapsed. There were 2,000 working inside at the time. A thousand have been treated in hospital, more than 350 are known to have died. That leaves about 600 people crying in the rubble or crushed and undiscovered.

It’s a high price for a T-shirt.

The Rana Plaza near Dhaka is one of more than 5,000 buildings in Bangladesh that house a clutch of  clothing factories to supply the West. Production costs are kept to the bare minimum to keep an edge over rivals across Asia – China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Thailand – and factory owners there (and elsewhere) show scant regard for the safety or security of their workers.

In September last year about 280 people died when fire swept through a factory in Karachi, Pakistan, that had been certified as safe by Western observers only two weeks before. Last November, more than a hundred were killed in a blaze in another Dhaka garment factory building;  survivors staged a protest two weeks later and the Prime Minister urged employers to pay greater attention to safety and to increase workers’ wages – but was anybody listening?

Bangladeshi textile exports to the West are worth about £12.5bn a year and the industry employs about four million – 80 per cent of them women. The Rana Plaza building has supplied Primark, Matalan, Benetton, Monsoon and Bonmarche. Tazreen Fashions, site of the November fire, made clothes for C&A and Wal-Mart (Asda). The Baldia factory in Karachi supplied the German discount chain KiK. Gap, Zara and H&M all buy clothes from Bangladesh. 

We have responded to television campaigns about sustainable fish, factory farming,  even turkey Twizzlers and adjusted our shopping habits. But countless television documentaries about the conditions in sweatshops making clothing, toy and electronics seem to have no impact on our behaviour – is it because we’re all softies about animal welfare in our own society, yet don’t give a fig for human welfare a few thousand miles away?

Western retailers are eager both to distance themselves from suppliers who exploit and endanger their workers, and to be seen to embrace inspection regimes and ethical sourcing programmes. But it  isn’t enough. They need to bring greater pressure to bear on the manufacturers, to become more closely involved in the production of the clothes they sell so that they can proclaim loud and proud that they know everything about the factories they buy from, just as the supermarkets do with the farms that produce our food.

It is no use shoppers boycotting Matalan or anything with ‘Made in Bangladesh’ in it; that will only harm the workers. And paying a little more may salve the conscience, but do little else: the £1.50 Primark T-shirt could well have been made by the woman next to the one sewing the £30 Benetton trousers or the £90 Monsoon maxi dress. Without scouring the ethical websites, we have no way of knowing whether our upmarket little number really was produced by women working in decent surroundings for a decent wage.

If our high street shops got together to produce a sewing machine symbol to guarantee the source of our clothes, just as the supermarkets do with the tractor for our food, everyone would  benefit.  Workers would be treated properly, customers would know what they were buying and stores would gain in reputation. Prices may rise to a more sensible level, but market forces should prevent them rocketing.

Some stores would decline to join the scheme, but we would know that from the absence of the little red sewing machine. People could still buy cheap clothes as they do cheap frozen chicken. But that would be a matter for their purses and their consciences.

Come on Fleet Street, bring out your finest and make this happen.


  1. I doubt Fleet Street would take it on because (a)it's women who are most affected and (b) they're overseas and foreign. Women come low on the list of Fleet Street priorities, foreign women come even lower.It needs someone very high profile - Joanna Lumley and the Ghurkas is an example - before Fleet Street, and most especially the tabloids, would even go near the area. Sad, isn't it?

    1. Thanks for commenting. It would be nice to know who you are. Yes I know it's just a straw in the wind, but here's a thing. Moments after my initial tweet linking to the blog, a male Daily Star journalist replied saying it was a good idea and putting me in touch with a campaign group. He also asked to be kept posted about any progress. So you never know....

  2. The Bangladesh tragedy is still unfolding, and somehow it is getting to me more than the events in Syria. Is this because I feel that in some small way it is my fault? Could I have done as gameoldgirl suggested and boycotted cheap clothes in the same way as I reject pork and chicken that I believe has not been ethically raised?

    A local musician who works internationally told our choir on Thursday night that he had had a good day in Cambridge. He had taken a large group of German students around Cambridge showing them the colleges, the architecture and spent time on the river. The students were enthusiastic and were apparently enjoying themselves. Finally he asked them - have you any questions? Yes was the reply, Which way is it to Primark?

    To try and improve the conditions under which the oppressed machinists work needs to be international or at least jointly with Europe. It could possibly help not only the eastern workers, but our own industries if our Trade Unions could take up the cause. Len Macclusky would be a good person to have side in this instance. DAB

  3. "Excellent article - interesting the comment from the person who wrote of a high profile woman. It does not need to be a woman - Matalan, Asda, men's shirts, pyjamas for a price would hardly pay for the reels of cotton if home made. Interesting to note Duchess of Cambridge wore a dress from Topshop yesterday costing £38 which could not have been produced without sweated labour somewhere, but earlier in the week she wore a dress costing more than a £1,000 to a tough estate - damned whatever she does." RB

  4. I don't think anything can be done, these countries are 100s of years behind the uk in regards to safety/working conditions.

    These people will always be paid peanuts because the people they work for want to make as much money as possible.

  5. Interesting article.

    It really is hard for consumers to make informed choices about where their clothes come from. At the weekend I looked at short-sleeved shirts in Primark for £5 and also very similar ones in Next for £35. Both made in Bangladesh.

    Am I really expected to believe that the shirt that cost seven times as much was made in a properly constructed building, with fully fairly-treated workers, decent pay rates etc? Or is the reality that all high street retailers source their clothes as cheaply as possible from very similar suppliers in the far east and that Primark just goes in for more of a "stack it high sell it cheap" low margins, high turnover business model than Next?

    According to the article, the same Bangladeshi building supplied Monsoon. They're not cheap.

    Is there an argument that Primark (I don't work for them by the way!)are more honest because they buy really cheap and sell really cheap, whereas other retailers buy really cheap but sell at monstrous mark-ups?

    Also, how many people can afford the alternative? A quick Google found me an "ethical" short sleeved shirt for £65.

    1. always nice to get feedback and i agree with much that you say. but it would be great if you could sign..thanks.

  6. This problem will never be addressed unless the massed ranks abandon their consumerist ways. For years the global market has allowed the West to indulge in the favourite passtime: shopping. The human cost is now coming home to roost.
    People have (or rather think they need) far too many material possessions such as wardrobes full of clothes.
    It wasn't that long ago that most men had a thick woolen suit, a couple of shirts and a pair of shoes. Women made do with a couple of skirts and blouses, probably a summer dress or two - clothes that cost a tidy farthing but the quality meant that they lasted and looked good for the life of the item.
    Obviously we are all free to choose in this society but perhaps if people went back to putting quality before quantity the world might become a better place.
    With the opening of more and more ghastly emporiums like Westfield I'm not holding my breath...

    1. lovely to see your comments - but wouldn't it be great if you could sign them, thanks.l

  7. I think this is a good strategy, the only flaw is that we'd be paying the manufacturer more and they would probably continue the way they have done regardless, but richer. I know it's a cynical view and I apologise for it, but watch the bbc show 'welcome to India', it will be an eye opener to their culture and how the businesses out there work. Again, sorry for the cynicism, any opportunity to make the world a fair place is a great leap forward, however, the fact remains that there is too much greed in the world

    1. It has to be a start - think of Fair Trade which started from small beginnings. Anything needs monitoring on the ground but if local people, probably women if possible, were to get their teeth into it, who knows where it can lead?

  8. "Excellent article people have (or rather think they need) far too many material possessions such as wardrobes full of clothes.Keep up the great work, I read few posts on this internet site and I believe that your blog is really interesting and contains bands of wonderful info.It wasn't that long ago that most men had a thick woolen suit, a couple of Linen shirts and a pair of shoes

  9. why they r still unconcern about this sector while our economy is very much depends on it? why??? very nice article indeed.
    t shirts in bangladesh