Relatives of the 1,135 people who lost their lives when the Rana Plaza complex collapsed on April 24 also said they had still to receive any compensation for their loss as they rallied at the site of the tragedy. Photo: SUVRA KANTI DAS
Last week it was six months since the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh.
Six months since images of destruction, rubble and crying families holding photos of their loved ones dominated our screens back home. Six months since hundreds of journalists, photographers and camera crews descended on the site in Dhaka, in Bangladesh’s primary garment industry, watching the daily death toll rise well into the thousands. And six months since the eyes of the western world were focused, if not forced, to look at the horrific conditions of the thousands of women and men who had once sat day in, day out, making our clothes, feeding the relentless and demanding global fashion industry.
In the wake of the worst industrial disaster in history many consumers couldn’t help but look at their clothes, and then back at their screens.
A garment worker who survived the Rana Plaza building collapse, takes part in a protest with her child to demand for compensation, on the six month anniversary of the incident. Photo: ANDREW BIRAJ
Our society’s demand for fast fashion had been exposed, showing an ugly reality of who was making our latest season's trends.
The collapse that killed at least 1127 workers also raised serious questions. How much were these garment workers, mostly women, getting paid? $37 a month. How many Australian retailers sourced from Bangladesh? At least 20. What were retailers doing to ensure a tragedy like this wouldn’t happen again? An international agreement accord on fire and building safety was introduced just before the collapse by major labour rights groups.
The Australian media was quick to respond. Channel Nine’s 60 minutes aired a segment from one of Kmart’s own factories in Dhaka; the ABC’s Four Corners ousted brands like Cotton On, Rivers and Target, showing the shocking conditions of their workers, also from Dhaka.
A Bangladeshi woman cries holding a picture of her son Asadul.
Fairfax Media ran successive stories on why Australian retailers should not abandon the ever-growing garment industry. Other news outlets ran a series of international articles detailing the unfolding drama of the collapse.
But as the dust began to settle on the rubble where the Rana Plaza once stood and the journalists and camera crews slowly packed up their belongings, the eyes of western world refocused its gaze away from this desperately poor, struggling garment industry.
As a journalist who has covered countless stories on the tragedy in the Herald, I can see the interest in this story waning at most media organisations, as editors and journalists move on to the next crisis, the next big story. This story is old, or so it seems.
But a new report shows nine out of ten survivors of the collapse have still not received any sick pay or compensation from their employers or the international brands whose garments they were stitching when the eight-storey building collapsed.
The report, by Action Aid, details the injuries of the 1509 survivors - of whom almost 80 per cent have had limbs amputated due to their horrific injuries. Almost all workers - 92 per cent - have not returned to work.
Labour rights groups are appalled. “It’s indefensible that for six months, multi-million dollar companies have left the victims to fend for themselves,” said Farah Kabir, ActionAid’s country director in Bangladesh. Indeed, it’s hard to swallow how this story is ‘‘old’’ to any consumer who has bought clothing made in another country, which by the way, is probably all of us.
Are we Bangladesh fatigued? Like generations before us who grew sick and tired of seeing desperately ill African children on their screens, have we too, begun to grow weary of the Bangladesh stories? When a second factory collapsed this month killing at least seven workers it gained less news interest, despite reports that at least three Australian retailers were sourcing fabric from the same factory.
Perhaps it was the smaller death count. Perhaps there was a bigger news story breaking. Perhaps we’re just over it. Oxfam’s Daisy Gardener agrees the media interest has started to fade. But Ms Gardener, who is Oxfam’s corporate accountability and fair trade advisor, says the consumer’s desire to know where their clothes came from is now insatiable.
“Just last week, we handed over a petition with 5000 signatories to Pacific Brands, which owns Bonds and Berlei, urging them to join the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord,” she says.
“It’s clear that a large number of Australian consumers are continuing to make the connection between the clothes they buy and the people who make them.”
There is also some change in the air among the retailers whose operations have long been cloaked in secrecy.
Before this tragedy in Bangladesh the only way a consumer could know where their clothes come from, was from the label sewn into their clothes.
Now, companies such as H&M are publishing the location of their factories. Kmart has promised to also publish a list and, to their credit, have agreed to compensate the victims and their families of the latest collapse.
Retailers are now quicker to acknowledge if their factory has been involved in a fire. Big Bosses like Myer’s Bernie Brooks are openly talking about the risk of exploitation in their supply chains.
These changes have only happened because of the initial, intense attention this scandal received. Visibility and pressure works.
Our challenge in the media and for the public is to continue applying pressure to the transparency of supply chains. And to be energised by the changes, not fatigued.
Sarah Whyte and Ben Doherty have been nominated for a Walkley award for their series on Bangladesh.