Dhaka disaster puts pressure on fashion stores
An item of clothing with a Primark label lies in the rubble on April 30, 2013 after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar killing almost 400 workers. The deadly collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory has piled pressure on Western fashion stores that churn out the season's hottest looks at cheap prices, many of which are sourced from sweatshops in poor countries.
The country's worst ever industrial disaster, which has left at least 388 dead, comes after deadly fires in other factories and years of concerns over the flouting of safety standards in the bargain-basement clothing industry.
Bustling high-street retailers are routinely accused of turning a blind eye and making a fortune off the backs of cheap labourers working in dangerous conditions.
A week after the disaster in a suburb of the capital Dhaka, with hundreds still missing under the rubble, the backlash is growing against these brands.
Clothing retailers such as Britain's low-cost retailer Primark and Canada's Loblaw have offered compensation to victims and their families, but activists have demanded they do more.
"International brands must take responsibility for what has happened there," said Laila Blanch from anti-poverty group War on Want, which has launched an online petition against high street brands Primark, Matalan and Mango.
"They outsourced the production to countries such as Bangladesh and China because of the lowest wages in the world," she said, accusing them of ignoring "very poor health and safety standards".
The organisation has demanded these brands sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.
"I've been in many factories and what I've seen is that for instance emergency exits are normally blocked with boxes, are blocked with rubbish from the factory," said Blanch.
"The windows of the factory... there are bars, so basically if there is a fire, workers can't escape from the windows as well."
Ineke Zeldenrust from Clean Clothes Campaign backed up these demands, saying brands' safety proposals in the past had been "insufficient".
"Workers need a structural solution, not a quick fix. The lack of action demonstrated by brands amounts to criminal negligence," Zeldenrust said.
Aid agency Oxfam welcomed the offer by Primark and Loblaw -- who were both supplied from the collapsed Rana Plaza complex -- to compensate victims.
"Other companies who had premises in the building should follow their example," Oxfam's Bangladesh country director Gareth Price Jones said in a statement.
Spanish label Mango said it had placed orders for sample items at the factory, while Italian group Benetton has also admitted it had products recently manufactured in the building.
Benjamin Martin of PR agency Publicis Consultants told AFP that these companies "can no longer feign surprise" after a November 2012 fire left 111 dead in a Bangladesh factory, which made clothes for the likes of US giant Wal-Mart.
"There is clearly a problem of transparency and traceability in the industry," said Julie Stoll of the French Fair Trade Platform, referring to apparent confusion among companies as to whether their suppliers were involved or not.
The country's $20-billion (15-billion-euro) garment industry is the world's second-biggest after China's, and Bangladeshi textile bosses scrambled Monday to assure leading brand names such as H&M and Gap about safety standards.
On Saturday a handful of people protested in front of Primark on London's Oxford Street, with placards reading "Never again" and "Cheap clothes = sweat shops", "Primark's shame" or "Love fashion, hate sweatshops".
Gareth Jones, who works in social media, said the offer of compensation by Primark was "a nice gesture, it's the least they could do really".
Another Londoner, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "It will not be enough to replace the loss for these families.... It's not really enough, not at all."
However, for the fashion-hungry shoppers plying these stores, dodgy practices by the textile industry "are still not a priority", said a source from a large European consumers' union.
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