Grief and rage in Delhi after factory deaths

Devastation: These relatives of the victims gathered outside a hospital mortuary. © Reuters

Who is to blame for sweatshops? Another disaster has thrown a spotlight onto fast fashion brands that exploit cheap labour. But some argue that the blame falls on appalling local management.

The fire broke out in the workshop of an illegal factory in Delhi’s tightly-packed Azad Market area. By 5:22 am local time, when the nearest fire department received the first calls for help, the blaze had spread to the third floor where 100 garment workers slept. At least 43 were killed.

“We woke up with cries and shouts for help,” said Ronak Khan, a 17-year-old living next door to the factory. “I saw people trapped. We asked them to come to the rooftop so that we could rescue them, but they were not able to come up.”

Outside, large crowds gathered in the winding, narrow streets and looked on in horror. They stayed long into the morning, many anxiously awaiting news of loved ones.

The fire, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called “horrific”, is one of many across Indian cities where safety regulations are lax and many buildings poorly planned.

But it is also a fresh reminder of the painful human cost of the fast fashion industry, which employs million of people around the world.

Churning out clothing for 14 hours a day or more, for very low pay, sweatshop workers are subject to harassment and abuse, usually with no benefits or bargaining power. Major global brands like Nike, ASOS and H&M have been accused of using sweatshops to maximise their profits.

In 2012, 112 people died in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh.

Just five months later, the eight-story Rana Plaza building collapsed in on itself, killing 1,134 garment workers and injuring many hundreds more. Primark, which employed workers in the factory, paid £10 million in compensation to victims.

In the immediate aftermath, global unions and 200 brands signed a pact to make fashion companies accountable for the safety of their factory workers.

And yet, despite these horrors, last year The New York Times wrote that it is “business as usual” in South Asia’s garment industry. Attempts to introduce stricter safety regulations have repeatedly been hampered by poor local enforcement and corner-cutting.

In fact, economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that the responsibility should not belong to brands at all, but to the local authorities that repeatedly fail to put decent regulations in place.

Who is to blame for sweatshops?

House of horrors

Most would say the fashion brands desperate to widen profit margins are at fault. They have “driven the income and working conditions of […] factory workers to the absolute rock bottom”, claim TruthOut.org. By extension, we — as consumers — are guilty of fuelling the machine by normalising and bagging impossibly cheap clothing. It is a classic example of the West exploiting developing nations for its own gain.

But for Bhagwati, it is abundantly “clear — except to those who are fixated on the brands as greedy capitalist predators — that it is the owners and managers who must be held responsible”. The causes of these fires — poor regulation and planning, lack of inspections — are down to the local operators. By pressuring brands to pull out of these communities, “the jobs they created will disappear, leaving the poor poorer”. It is time for authorities to step up.

You Decide

  1. Are fashion brands to blame for sweatshops?
  2. Is it immoral to buy cheap clothes?

Activities

  1. Highlight three facts and three opinions in the above story, in different colours.
  2. Write a letter to a fast fashion brand, persuading it to stop using sweatshop labour.

Some People Say...

“Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying.”

Lucy Siegle, British journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Forty-three workers were killed in the early hours of Sunday morning, when a fire broke out in an illegal garment factory that made school bags. Around 100 workers were sleeping on the third floor, 60 of whom were rescued. Geographical constraints meant that rescuers had to carry out victims on their shoulders one-by-one.
What do we not know?
Exactly how many brands use sweatshops to make their clothes. Supply chains can be long and opaque. Last year, Primark released a map of its suppliers in a push to prove that it does not use slave labour. ASOS, Adidas and H&M have taken similar steps.

Word Watch

Delhi
The capital of India. The area of the city where the factory was located is tightly packed with narrow streets, which made it difficult for help to arrive.
Narendra Modi
He is leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Right-wing, Hindu nationalist organisation.
Lax
Not strict enough.
Fast fashion
Used to describe low-priced clothing that is not built to last long. It is made and sold quickly to match current trends.
Bargaining power
Factory management often takes steps to prevent the formation of trade unions, which protect workers.
Collapsed
The building took less than 90 seconds to collapse. Unions called it a “mass industrial homicide”.

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