|(Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
With a sigh of relief as H&M, Mango and Primark take the brunt of the opprobrium, the rest of the High Street has been put on high alert.
Quite how conscience stricken the average consumer is remains to be seen - despite media-fuelled outrage at the appalling conditions in Bangladesh, most of us have long known that cheap clothes and consumer electronics come at a price. It's just that we don't have to pay it and as long as it's not being shoved in our faces, we find it convenient to walk by on the other side of the street. Hands up if you own an Apple device. Now hands up if you are perfectly well aware of the suicides of staff employed by Apple contract manufacturer Foxconn.
Take a look at these images from Dhaka, whose leather industry is one of the most appalling and polluted environments in the world, where workers are dying, poisoned by the toxic cocktails created by the medieval processes and conditions that prevail there. The human price, The Guardian tells us, is 'intolerable'. So now you know, are you going to look for the label in that lovely handbag before you buy it to make sure it doesn't say 'Made in Bangladesh'?
Documents recovered from the rubble of Rana Plaza show retailers are buying clothes for up to a tenth of what they retail for in the West. This excellent Reuters report details the economics of cheap labour thanks to order books recovered from the wreckage - Mango buying polo shirts for $4.45 that retail for over ten times that in the UK. Also, interestingly, Mango sells those shirts for the equivalent number of Pounds to Euro, a mirror of the annoying practice of just changing the $ to a £ tag and letting the Brits consequently pay loads more for the same stuff.
But it's not just Bangladesh. There are sweatshops all over the world, from Mexico to Ajman and Szechuan to Sharjah where workers live in conditions far removed from the halogen lamps and sleek shelving of those glittering stores that sell us not just clothing but aspiration, the dream of a lifestyle lived in that one unforgettable moment of joy. Secured by immersion in the brand, clinched by the act of buying.
It's mildly ironic, is it not, that the top on sale in that gleaming Dubai mall could have been made in a warehouse in Ajman, shipped to the UK or US and then shipped back here again?
I'm not saying for one second the UAE's garment factories are in the same league as Dhaka's tanneries or the mass grave that was Rana Plaza. But godowns packed with Asian (mostly, as far as I can see, Sri Lankan) women on minimal wages working long hours and housed in soulless labour camps turning out piles of cheap clothing for top high street European and US brands are to be found both in the industrial areas and free zones of both Emirates. It's going to be interesting to see if they change their working practices voluntarily, as the result of that roving media spotlight or because a newly image-conscious UAE imposes regulation on them. Of the three, of course, the former is by far the preferable.
The only question is whether they're smart enough to see it coming...