Bangladesh fire highlights consumer role in worker safety

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 4:34am

Fashion, quality and price determine how we buy clothes. We may look at the label indicating where an item of apparel is made, but unless cost is no object, we rarely give the place of origin a second thought. The worst-ever fire at a Bangladesh garment factory, therefore, has to give us pause for thought. Those who died were making clothes that would have stocked Hong Kong shop shelves, yet they were working in conditions that are unacceptable in our city.

The fire broke out on the ground floor of the nine-storey building, which despite the presence of suppliers to major foreign firms - Hong Kong's Li & Fung among them - did not have external fire escapes. Scores of workers were burned or suffocated to death or died jumping from upper floors. The cut-throat nature of the fashion industry means that garments are sourced from markets with the lowest production costs and Bangladesh is fast supplanting China as the favoured location. It is competitive because Bangladeshi labour laws and working conditions are among the worst in the world.

A consequence is that fires, accidents and worker exploitation are common-place. High-profile Western campaigns have meant that consumers expect companies working in developing countries like Bangladesh to maintain high ethical standards when producing goods. It is expected practice for firms to have codes of conduct and abide by international standards for themselves, their suppliers and business partners. Sunday's fire broke out despite clothes being made for major global retailers.

Fast fashion trends have changed the way we dress and shop. They have given jobs to people in poor countries, but also led to many working in dangerous conditions. The governments in such nations have to strive for better labour laws and properly police the rules. But as consumers, we also have an obligation. Through our buying habits, we can help ensure clothes are made in a safe environment by workers who are treated reasonably.