Labour Day, or International Workers Day, will be remembered for the loss of hope for the lives of workers still buried in a collapsed illegal building that housed clothing factories in Bangladesh. Last Sunday, which ironically was World Day for Safety and Health at Work, will be remembered for the arrest of the owner-builder as he tried to flee the country.
This inopportune alignment of events might prompt people in rich societies like ours to reflect on our moral position at the end of a production chain that can cause such suffering. As consumers of cheap, high-quality clothing, we enable big retailers to make handsome profits from sweated labour in developing countries like Bangladesh. There may be other contributing factors, such as lack of factory inspectors or the failure of foreign retailers to sign an agreement for an independent safety inspection system. But the main reason - the reason clothing companies go to places like Bangladesh - is exploitation of cheap labour in inhuman conditions. They squeeze profit margins so much that manufacturers subcontract to factories that enforce excessive working hours and abuse building regulations and environmental standards.
When we buy food, we check the integrity of its origin for the sake of our health. But when we buy clothing do we ever think about whether the workers who made it have safe working conditions or are granted basic human dignity, like having regular bathroom breaks? While the Bangladeshi government maintains a cosy relationship with big companies at the expense of its own people, we can expect the clothing we buy to come at the cost of more lives. International Labour Organisation standards, and labels that tell us what we are buying, should be enforced through the World Trade Organisation.
Labour Day celebrates the dignity of work. Perhaps the UN should take over World Consumer Rights Day on March 15 and combine them, to remind consumers that they, too, have a role to play in protecting workers from exploitation.