05/01/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 07/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Would You Pay an Extra 10 Cents to Save Lives in Bangladesh?

In The Elves and the Shoemaker story by the Brothers Grimm, little naked elves come into a poor shoemaker's house and put together well-crafted shoes so the shoemaker can sell them the next day. The shoemaker rewards the creatures with tiny suits of clothing in thanks for their work that makes his business a success.

In the real world, human beings make our clothing, and they are not treated as well as the Grimm elves.

People take clothing for granted but producing a simple garment is incredibly complex. Consider what goes into a simple cotton shirt:

  • growing, collecting, and processing the cotton fibre;
  • spinning the fibres into thread;
  • weaving the threads into fabric;
  • applying chemical treatments to the fibre or fabric (i.e. mercerization);
  • dyeing and/or printing the fabric;
  • creating a pattern for the garment;
  • cutting the fabric;
  • choosing findings -- thread, buttons, shaping materials (interfacing), etc.;
  • physically putting the garment together.

It's amazing how much work goes into one shirt. Even more amazing is how cheap it can be to buy.

Cheap clothing is cheap partially because it consists of low-grade material. The garment may look OK on a hanger in the store, but once you wash and wear it a few times, it will lose its shape and elastic recovery if it's a knit, often the dyes run, and ultimately you have a new rag to clean with.

Low-grade fabrics could be made of anything but are commonly cottons and cotton blends (i.e. polyester- cotton). Fabric manufacturers often add chemical fillers to these cheap fabrics and these finishes wash out, leaving your garments limp and lifeless. I often think of the horrid environmental impact of this "disposable" clothing.

Cheap Labour

The Industrial Revolution brought in technology to replace human labour and lower the costs of manufacturing, including machines to speed the production and lower the cost of textile production at every stage: farming, spinning, weaving, and cutting, but machines can never replace human hands for building cloth garments. This is why fires and building collapses in garment factories are so sad.

Last November, a fire broke out in a Bangladeshi garment factory, killing 112. The doors were locked by management, trapping workers inside. Last week, Rana Plaza, an illegally built eight-story factory building collapsed with thousands of workers inside, killing almost 400 people, injuring thousands, with scores still missing.

Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity interviewed with CBC a day after the collapse, saying the negligence by factory owners, government, and Western retailers is ongoing, and they are aware of the working conditions and state of the buildings but choose to ignore it. Retailers hire third-party auditors to tour buildings and often there is no documentation or follow up.

We now know that Sohel Rana, the owner of the Rana Plaza, slapped three extra floors on top of the five he had permission to build. He has been arrested, property confiscated, and the Bangladeshi people are calling out for the death penalty. The Bangladesh High Court has ordered the government to to freeze the assets of the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza, with the money used to pay the salaries of their workers.

Bangladeshi garment workers earn 18 cents an hour for work in substandard facilities, working for Western garment companies with eyes trained on profits.

When tragedy strikes, says Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker's Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C., "Western retailers choose not to take direct responsibility for what happens to their workers, and prefer to blame the consumer because it lets them off the hook morally. They throw up their hands and say consumers demand cheap clothing and we're giving consumers what they want."

Like blaming the Devil for bad behaviour.

"The reality is that there is no consumer that wants to save a few pennies on a T-shirt or dress at the expense of the lives of the men and women who make the clothes," Nova says.

What can we do?

Last November's fire sparked a movement to petition The Gap, one of the retailers fingered in the tragedy, to add 10 cents to their retail price to bring working conditions to standard in Bangladesh. The Gap has instead chosen to create its own "corporate-controlled monitoring system that won't be accountable to workers, consumers, or independent safety experts," according to Sum of Us.

Ultimately, change is up to us, we that consume these "fast fashion" garments, to urge retailers to give us a choice in paying extra -- up to 15 cents per garment -- to pay for the assurance that factory workers would be treated well at work and in safe conditions.

Though the cost of living in Bangladesh is significantly lower than the cost of living in Canada, Bangladeshi garment workers need not be treated as slaves to line the pockets of Western brands and retailers.

Loblaws and Britain's Primark are compensating the victims of the disaster, as their clothing lines were produced in Rana Plaza -- a step in the right direction to be sure, but there are other retailers are running from their responsibility. It is up to us, the consumers, to pressure these brands to do the right thing for south Asian workers.

It's not a matter of companies choosing to set up business in places like Bangladesh, as their people could use the work, it's about demanding safe conditions for workers and allowing workers to create independent unions and participate in collective bargaining.

If we continue to demand cheap clothing, we have to be responsible and tell retailers to adopt a dime-per-garment policy to help Western clothing giants pay for safe conditions for south Asian workers, and through the funds that $0.10 per garment adds up to, surely honest managers could be hired to conduct continuous safety checks throughout the year.

The elves happily bounce out the door in their new sets of clothing in Grimm Brother's story, and the shoemaker flourishes to the end of his days. Fashion doesn't have to make people suffer. There is no reason that the off-shore garment industry can't be fair and safe for everyone involved.

No one wants human lives as the price of doing business.

Bangladesh Factory Collapse (UPDATED)