Anti-Primark posing helps nobody
Blaming Western shoppers for the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza building will make life worse for Bangladeshis.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 24 April was a terrible tragedy. Over 1,100 workers lost their lives that day – and most were making clothes for Western retailers. But, here’s the thing: despite buying clothes here in the West, I am not responsible for what happened to the Rana Plaza building.
It may sound like a strange statement, but it’s one that has to be made. Like countless others, I shop at Primark, one of the retailers which used labourers housed at the Rana Plaza. And ever since the tragic incident in Bangladesh, I have been made to feel guilty for doing so. In a cringing act of opportunism, assorted NGOs and campaign groups, carpet-baggers of self-righteousness one and all, are using the terrible incident in Dhaka to re-assert their moral superiority and condemn us plebeian shoppers, not only as contemptible for our cheap tastes, but also as criminal for buying affordable clothes. Ordinary British consumers have been branded culpable for the death of the garment workers in Bangladesh. It is as if we have colluded in the very destruction of the Rana Plaza. The act of buying a Primark t-shirt is enough to turn us into an accessory to murder.
Yet the tragedy in Dhaka was not caused by the British predilection for cheap clothing; the garment factories involved in this incident were not sweat shops; and the workers, although poorly paid in comparison to workers in the UK, received reasonable wages relative with Bangladeshi standards. In fact, the building itself was a large complex of shops and apartments – it even housed a bank. By many accounts, it was a combination of shoddy workmanship, the flouting of building regulations and sheer corruption that led to the building’s collapse. British shoppers were not to blame.
But to believe the smug holier-than-thou merchants of doom, it is all our fault. Our unseemly aspiration to get above our station by wanting to buy affordable trendy clothes is oppressing Bangladeshi workers to the point of death, apparently. Picketing Primark, cheekily nicknamed ‘Primani’ by its plebeian clientele, the middle-class protesters are not only showing their contempt for the masses but are also actively attacking the livelihoods of those who work there. Brandishing placards with slogans like ‘Primark Shame’ or ‘Blood on their hands’, and waving images of the destroyed Rana Plaza superimposed on fashion models, these ‘activists’ are using the radical tactic of the picket line, historically deployed to defend workers, to attack the working classes.
Unfortunately, there is more to this campaign than trying to send shoppers on an irritating guilt trip. The calls for the boycott of Primark, Gap and other fashion retailers who import their products from Bangladesh is adding further harm to an already grave injury. It is resurrecting the perennial spectre of Western interference in poorer countries and threatening the livelihood of millions of Bangladeshi garment workers.
The signs of potential damage to the Bangladeshi economy are already there. As the Financial Times reports, H&M, the largest buyer of clothes from Bangladesh, is considering sourcing clothes elsewhere. The fact is the textile sector is the mainstay of the Bangladeshi economy. Around four million workers make their living in an industry that is the primary foreign-exchange earner for Bangladesh, and the single source of its rapid economic development. Boycotting the industry now will deal Bangladesh’s economy and its workers a far more devastating blow than the collapse of one building.
But even if retailers do not pull out of Bangladesh, there is a more insidious action in line. The relentless campaign, fronted by organisations such as Avaaz which created an ad campaign under the heading ‘guilt-free clothing’, has led several of the world’s largest clothing companies to sign ‘a far-reaching and legally binding plan that requires retailers to help finance fire safety and building improvements in the factories they use in Bangladesh’. The lone dissenter was Gap, which objected to the legally binding nature of the agreement. No one can object to ensuring the health and safety of Bangladeshi workers, but it is a matter for Bangladeshi workers themselves, through their trade unions, to make these changes. What is objectionable is using the legal framework in European countries to enshrine in law Western interference in the affairs of a sovereign country in law. We might as well resurrect the East India Trading Company.
To cap it all, the quintessential British retailer Marks & Spencer has just launched its Shwapping campaign. Fronted by the patron saint of sustainable chic herself, Joanna Lumley, the campaign urges us to donate our unwanted clothes to M&S in return for a five-pound voucher. Not only is this blatant gerrymandering of consumers under false pretences, essentially giving them a feeling of virtuous self-satisfaction while seeming to reward them (the voucher can only be spent on limited M&S products within a very short time period); the clothes are also collected, then passed on to Oxfam, who actually sell them in Africa, making Oxfam a direct competitor to local producers.
The anti-Primark et al campaign is combining the three worst aspects of modern activism: disdain for the masses; a condescending attitude to the developing world; and an eagerness for Western intervention. An unholy trinity that will damage trade links and set back workers’ rights. We need a counter campaign to stop the damage this will do to Bangladesh, otherwise it really will be time for a mea culpa.
Rania Hafez is the director of the professional network Muslim Women in Education.