Laws alone can't prevent a disaster like the Bangladesh factory collapse

There was no shortage of people walking into one of the Primark outlets in Glasgow on Wednesday. As a new agreement to raise building and fire safety standards was being signed in Bangladesh, people in Glasgow were busy looking for the best deals Primark had to offer. One of Primark's suppliers used to operate from the second floor of the building that collapsed and left 1,100 people dead.

And who can blame the shoppers queuing up at Primark ? I went looking for a simple white shirt and while it cost almost £20 at M&S, it was £6 at Primark. Both shirts looked pretty much the same.

Bodies of victims of the Bangladesh factory collapse lined up on the porch of a Dhaka hospital. AFP.

Bodies of victims of the Bangladesh factory collapse lined up on the porch of a Dhaka hospital. AFP.

Primark and several other companies like Tesco and Bennetton have signed up for the new health and safety accord, drafted by IndustryiALL in Europe and the UNI Global Union.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh on April 24, killing more than 1,100 people, has become the worst disaster in the garment industry's history and one of the worst industrial accidents of the past 100 years.

But the building met a code of conduct days before it came down.

Now, retailers who have signed up to the accord will have to pay for upgrades and will have to conduct independent inspections - and they are bound by law to do it.

Walmart, the world's biggest retailer, and other US outlets such as Gap have said they will not sign the deal and will instead carry out its own safety inspections and improvements. So the law only applies if you sign up for it.

So if you do business with Gap or Walmart in Bangladesh, you're not liable to follow the new safety law.

Unfortunately, factory disasters are not a new thing. Several people have been dying for years in factory mishaps and have been making clothes and other consumer products for measly remunerations. Meanwhile, shoppers in the West make a beeline for these garments and make the big clothing chains richer.

Despite sustained campaigns in the West and regular media coverage of the appalling working conditions of the suppliers of these big clothing brands, not many buyers walk away from a Walmart, Gap or Primark. Until the buyers and consumers protest, refrain from buying these brands and demand better working conditions for suppliers in Bangladesh or China, the companies will never make an effort in the same direction.

The only alternative to changing western shopping habits would be having countries like Bangladesh force strict standards on all factories regardless of who they do business with.

Even with more than 1,100 people dead, we have not reached that necessary change. While the disaster has led to the signing of the said agreement, we have to debate how much it is capable of saving lives in reality.

Updated Date: May 16, 2013 10:35 AM

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