Low-wage, risky work soils fashion sold here

 

Made in Cambodia. Made in Turkey. Made in India.

It doesn’t take long, at this Kansas City store where clothing is trendy and cheap, to find what I’m looking for.

Made in Bangladesh. Tank tops for $7.95. Classic button-down shirts for $19.95. Men’s pants in pastel colors for $29.95. Sweet little girl frocks for $9.95.

I’m checking price tags at the H&M store. But you’ll find the same thing at any number of stores in any number of cities worldwide — cheap clothes made by workers who labor for low pay and often in deadly conditions to enable recreational shopping in wealthier nations.

More than 400 of those workers perished last week when an eight-story building collapsed on the fringes of Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. The building contained five clothing factories. Bodies are still being dug out of the rubble.

The collapse of the building, called Rana Plaza, was the worst factory disaster in Bangladesh, but by no means the only one. A fire six months ago killed 112 workers.

Over here, on the receiving end of the supply chain, we can deplore what happened and the crime and corruption that caused it. The owner of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, traded in illegal guns and drugs and bought off politicians, news outlets have reported. He brushed off a warning from a panicked building inspector the day before the fall. The engineer found large cracks in support pillars, and wanted the building closed immediately. Rana told local reporters the cracks were only chipped plaster. “It is not a problem,” he said.

Well, it was. And it is.

It is a problem for Rana, 35, who was flushed out of hiding near the India border and hauled back to Dhaka, where enraged citizens are demanding the death penalty. And it is a problem for American and European retailers with ties to the garment suppliers who feed the industry known as “fast fashion.” That is, clothing so appealing and affordable that consumers buy and buy, even as their closets fill up and the garments become so much clutter, creating a whole new set of problems with disposal.

Some companies quickly acknowledged ties to the factories inside Rana Plaza, and set up a fund to compensate the families of victims. Other retailers issued denials — dubious ones, in some cases — of any connections.

But it doesn’t really matter which companies were purchasing goods from the Rana Plaza factories when the building fell. What matters is that too many workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere, most of them women, are being denied basic dignity and safety to sustain gluttonous clothing consumption.

I’m not opposed to goods being produced overseas. In some nations, factory jobs are a step up from more demeaning and dangerous work.

But wealthy companies have a responsibility to ensure that buildings are structurally sound, that they have fire escapes, that workers receive sufficient time off and livable wages and a voice through trade unions. Governments and local environments that are too disorganized or corrupt to permit those basic protections don’t deserve to profit from international business.

Better conditions and pay for overseas garment workers might well result in prices bumping up a bit on the racks of our favorite clothing stores. But forcing more discernment on purchases would not be a bad thing. It might mean fewer barely worn items ending up in landfills or bundled and shipped overseas, where the glut of American castoff clothing has choked off textile industries in developing nations.

And if we have to pay more for the latest fashion to protect and enhance the lives of the people who make the goods, it is money well spent.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

The Kansas City Star

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