Rescue workers attempt to rescue garment workers from the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, in Savar, 30km outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Sunday.   Picture: REUTERS
Rescue workers attempt to rescue garment workers from the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, in Savar, 30km outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS

WHAT is a fair price for a T-shirt? The tragedy unfolding in the ruins of a Bangladeshi garment factory, where at last count more than 220 people have died and scores more are missing, is a stark reminder that in a world where consumers demand ever lower prices, the cost of a bargain can be too high.

The disaster in Bangladesh was first and foremost the fault of the building’s owner. A local politician, he used his influence to circumvent building regulations and extend a complex rented out to factories making clothes for cut-price store brands such as the UK’s Primark.

But the world’s big retailers, most of which have flocked to profit from Bangladesh’s low wages and poor working conditions, share responsibility for operating in a country where such abuse is rife.

It is no longer enough to claim that occasional factory inspections and contracts bristling with conditions entitle a retailer to the title of ethical trader. Primark has drawn praise from campaign groups and labour unions in recent years for such efforts. The reality on the ground is that all the inspection procedures in the world are pointless if laws are flouted.

Retailers will argue that it is not their job to enforce regulation. That is true. They should focus on developing long-term relationships with trusted factories, and help manufacturers to invest in desperately needed health and safety measures. But they should also use their economic muscle to press the government to do its job.

Bangladesh’s political establishment is hostage to the garment industry, which accounts for more than 75% of exports. Many politicians are themselves clothes factory bosses and have little reason to want regulations enforced.

The world’s clothing brands may be under pressure from rising raw material costs and price competition. But they cannot continue to sell garments that campaigners will argue have been manufactured at the cost of innocent lives. In the end, even Bangladesh’s cost benefits may be outweighed by reputational damage. Those who died at Rana Plaza are unlikely to be the last victims of an industry that has operated above the law.

On Sunday, thousands of factory workers marched to demand safer working conditions. Big western retailers have a moral obligation, and the clout, to lead that change.

London, April 26