Mysterious messages about working conditions discovered in a Swansea store remind us that textile industry standards have changed little since the Rana Plaza disaster
‘Primark, unlike other retailers who have admitted to a presence in the Rana Plaza factory, has contributed to the compensation fund.’ Photograph: Darren Britton/Wales News Service Darren Britton/Wales News Service/Darren Britton/Wales News Service
t seems so unlikely as to be incredible: a cry for help sewn into a Primark dress. First one, now two Swansea shoppers have come forward and told the South Wales Evening Post that they found extra labels sewn into items bought last year. “Forced to work exhausting hours” read the first; “Degrading sweatshop conditions” says the latest, pictured in the 25 June edition of the paper.
Primark has promised to investigate, and may hope the labels will turn out to be a hoax. Perhaps they are a new form of direct action, carried out with a needle in the changing rooms – or even by a mole on the inside?
But two months after the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, when most of those injured and bereaved by the disaster are still waiting for compensation – though Primark, unlike other retailers who have admitted to a presence in the factory, has contributed to the compensation fund – the secret message hidden inside a piece of women’s clothing is a startling image. Could a garment worker somewhere in the developing world really reach across the heads of managers, unions, manufacturers, governments, western multinationals and shopfloors into the wardrobe of an ordinary shopper, to make a complaint? And if so, what do they want us to do about it?
Improve their working conditions, is the obvious answer. But how? One anonymous senior executive from a big high street retailer recently told the Guardian that shoppers “don’t care” about conditions, and research shows most “prefer inexpensive over respect for human rights”. If consumers were more bothered about workers, goes this argument, the industry would progress.
Campaigners, including the designer Katharine Hamnett, call this a cop-out. Differences between retailers are proof that they, too, drive change. European brands have gone further than those in the US in their support for Bangladeshi trade unions in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza catastrophe, though Matalan and Benetton have yet to make any contribution to the compensation fund despite admitting links with the factory.
But it is true that the rise of ethical shopping, or what US sociologist Juliet Schor calls “conscious consumption”, has made limited headway in fashion. It is possible to choose free-range over factory-produced eggs even in convenience stores; much harder to opt to pay a premium of a couple of pounds for a T-shirt that comes with ethical plus points.
In part this is down to the sheer complexity of the fashion supply chain. Perhaps the most poignant and ironic thing about the message in a Primark dress, is that as far away as the machine operators in the stitch-and-sew factories ofBangladesh and elsewhere might appear, they are far closer to us than most of the other millions of people involved in making our clothes.
Thanks in part to the publicity surrounding the Rana Plaza disaster, we can at least imagine the men and women who sew them. But before a cotton dress is cut and stitched it is dyed and printed; before that it is woven from yarn into cloth; before that it is spun from raw cotton into yarn. And before that it is planted, picked, and ginned (or cleaned). Cotton is an agricultural commodity and the world’s most important non-food crop, grown on all five continents and by some of the poorest people in the world.
Long before we got to meet Dorset fishermen at the farmer’s market, stories about where food comes from was part of the story advertisers told us. Think of the man from Del Monte, or the cows on Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream. People like to see the name of the farmer who grew their carrots on the supermarket packaging, and picture pigs in fields rather than crates.
Fashion simply can’t deliver this kick, or not without tremendous efforts on the parts of specialists such as Bruno Pieters, whose recently launched Honest Bylabel provides details of exactly where and how each item was made. The story of textile production is the story of industrialisation, of thrilling technological innovation in the north of England. But it is also the story of slavery and the destruction of textile manufacturing in India, as Ian Jack wrote last week. It’s no wonder this cry of rage from a garment factory, whoever put it there, pricks our consciences. Even if we can hardly begin to understand why.
Source: The Guardian