Primark, the clothing chain that operates in Ireland as Penney’s, has taken a welcome step towards acknowledging its responsibility to the victims of last week’s collapse of an eight-storey building in Bangladesh. At least 380 people died in the disaster and others remain trapped beneath the rubble of the Rana Plaza building about 30km outside Dhaka. One of Primark’s suppliers, Simple Approach, had contracted New Wave Style, a company that operated on the second floor of the building, to manufacture garments. Primark will make compensation payments to victims of the disaster who worked for its supplier, promising “long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to the families of the deceased”.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which was built illegally, has focused international attention on safety conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, which supplies clothing to many western retailers. Last week’s disaster was at least the third reported industrial accident in the country since last November, when 112 people died in a fire at a workshop that was producing clothes for a number of western clothing chains. Advocates for garment workers’ rights say that half of Bangladesh’s garment factories fail to meet legal safety standards and that many have poor electrical wiring, too few exits and insufficient fire-fighting equipment.
Bangladesh’s textile industry is worth an estimated $18 billion, accounting for 10 per cent of the country’s industrial output and 80 per cent of its exports, most of which go to the United States and the European Union. Major western retailers are not shy about using their economic muscle in Bangladesh to enforce quality control on suppliers but many have, until now, been more reluctant to insist on the highest safety standards and better conditions for the workers who make their products. After last week’s tragedy, they can no longer be allowed to look the other way.