The Fashion Victims of Bangladesh

A year after more than 1,000 textile workers died in the Rana Plaza factory the rubble, the rags and the horror remain, reminding us of consumerism’s true cost.

At the end of April, in the course of a visit to Bangladesh, I visited the Dhaka suburb of Savar, where, a year ago almost to the day, the textile factory known as Rana Plaza collapsed, its nine stories overladen with machinery entombing 1,129 textile workers.

I want to spend some time in reflection here.

Day is breaking.

My companions and I arrive at the end of a choked road on which compete, amid a cacophony of horns, a throng of rickshaws, ancient Leyland buses, trucks spewing diesel fumes, cars of indeterminate age, and scooters and bicycles piled high with goods.

We leave behind the clutches of men and sari-clad women who, like asphalt kamikazes, dart between speeding vehicles to reach a fortune-teller’s stand, a display of fruit arranged on the ground, or a child who had been left to beg at an intersection.

And we head into a dead end that, after running along a trash-strewn vacant lot, brings us abruptly to the mountain of bulldozed rubble that is all that remains of the catastrophe, wedged between buildings that, though crumbling, still stand.

In silence we climb the hill.

Under our feet, from between shards of concrete, can be seen bits of cloth, fragments of labels in English, French, Italian, Japanese, and German, buttons of every color, plastic anti-theft devices clamped to tatters of clothing, zippers—everything that one finds, precisely assembled, in the windows and changing rooms, on the racks and shelves, of apparel shops in Europe and everywhere else.

And the worst is that at the summit of this emporium of dust and debris has formed a sort of depression the size and shape of a bomb crater that seems to have been the epicenter of the disaster. In this crater, frail silhouettes, women for the most part, bend to dig with their bare hands in the rubble. It is impossible to tell whether they are scavenging for scraps of twisted iron bar to resell by the pound or if they dig in the futile hope of locating one of the eight bodies still unaccounted for, still buried in the heap, bodies for which the authorities have given up the search.

Confronted with this spectacle—this black hole of human distress, this open-air netherworld, this anus mundi—we waver between sadness, pity, fear—and, yes, anger.

Because, in the end, this modern massacre of innocents 6,000 miles from the shop windows of Western chic, this tragedy of globalization that, if nothing is done, will surely be followed by many others of the same ilk, is neither the work of fate nor, as has too often been said, an accident.

Guilty are the builders, concrete contractors, and ironworkers who, to cut prices, ignored the most basic construction and safety standards.

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Guilty are the cynical owners, the slave-driving manufacturers, the chain of subcontractors whose supervisors covered up unfair and exploitive practices.

Guilty are the brands both large and small that prosper on the backs of this defenseless sub-proletariat and then, with two exceptions, offer nothing in compensation to the families—this one passing the buck to its Bangladeshi go-between; that one relying on the shell companies that it had the foresight to set up between it and the poor crushed bodies; a third contending that the rules for the assessment of damages have not been clearly articulated.

Which brings us to Western consumers on the other side of the globe who look only at the price of goods and whose buying power turns on the management of these sweatshops. They, too, are guilty. They, too, bear some responsibility for the scandal represented by these T-shirts mass-produced under inhuman conditions. Stitch by stitch, as the wretched of the textile trade are ground down by the iron law of dumping for the benefit of elegant and blissfully ignorant men and women, the chain of appearance is inextricably entwined with a hidden world of slavery, squalor, and horror. “Fashion victim,” we say, to refer to a clueless lover of brands and logos. Well, that very same expression, used to name the true victims of the grim trade of which Bangladesh and a few others are the purveyors, has now become an intolerable obscenity.

On this subject, it would be interesting to hear from our unions, which are so quick to denounce the ill effects of offshoring—but only when it harms their members.

It would be nice if the international law that nearly a century ago defined the conditions of forced labor were invoked and applied to the situation in Bangladesh.

Public opinion is the ultimate judge in such matters, and public opinion—we—can and must proclaim that profit must not be pursued with disdain for human life and dignity. We must make it known that we have had enough of consumerism tainted with misery and blood.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy