A mourner grieves for her relative, missing and presumed dead, at the scene of the April 24 Rana Plaza garment building collapse. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Matalan have bowed to pressure over Rana Plaza, but the campaign goes on

The campaign to aid victims hit by the collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory last year has produced results, but decent working conditions for all is still a long way off.

When Rana Plaza collapsed, Mossammat Rebecca Khatun was inside. It was two more days before she was rescued. She survived but paid a heavy price. Her injuries robbed her of her right foot and her left leg. But the collapse of the cramped eight-storey building took far more. She lost five members of her family under the rouble; her mother's body was never found.

What happened that day was first and foremost a tragedy for all those affected. More than 1,100 lost their lives. More than two and a half thousand were injured. Lives destroyed, families ripped apart, entire communities bereaved.

But the collapse of Rana Plaza had a powerful meaning beyond those it directly affected. What happened at Rana Plaza was a brutal message to the world.

The disaster exposed to the world the appalling and unsafe conditions in which many Bangladeshi garment sector workers are employed.

A stark reminder that in the second decade of this century workers around the world are exploited every day. From Qatar to Cambodia, Bangladesh to the South China Sea, 21 million live in modern day slavery; millions more, like those at Rana Plaza, work for pennies a day in conditions that wouldn't meet the most basic health and safety conditions. And the garments they produce are the mainstay of many clothes shops on our own high streets.

Decent work for decent pay under decent conditions should be a right for all. But in Bangladesh more than 1,000 workers went to their deaths in a building that many of them feared was dangerous and knew to be creaking.

More than a year on, the survivors of this tragedy must rebuild their lives - but they can't do it alone.

That's why the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) has established a Trust Fund to cover payments to Rana Plaza victims and their families. The ILO initiative is largely funded through donations from international garment manufacturers, and the funding deadline for the Trust Fund is today.

Labour has been calling on all companies to play their part.

After initially refusing to contribute to the fund, overnight Matalan, the last major UK garment retailer with links to Rana Plaza not to contribute finally bowed to pressure - including petitioners from 38 degrees and a direct letter from the Shadow DFID team - and announced a donation to the fund.

Matalan should never have dragged their feet before paying into the Fund, but now we need full transparency.

Matalan - and other companies that profited from Rana Plaza - have a moral responsibility to pay their fair share. But as things stand, the Fund is significantly short of its target, meaning that the compensation payments will be more limited than it should be: in short it means the victims of this terrible tragedy will be wronged again.

British shoppers want to buy their clothes without fear that companies are unresponsive to worries about risks in their supply chain.

We also need co-ordination action in the future to see safer workplaces for all, no matter where they happen to live.

On coming to power, one of the first steps of the Tory-led government was to end UK financial support to the International Labour Organisation. As well as being wrong-headed, this move detracts from any moral authority to urge retailers to support the ILO-backed fund.

Equally importantly, it means Britain has abdicated its place in the vital work the ILO and others are doing to prevent a re-occurrence of a tragedy like Rana Plaza, through the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

This is a landmark agreement between retailers and trade unions to require safety inspections of Bangladeshi factories and to contribute financially towards repairs that are identified as necessary, as well as committing retailers to withdrawing contracts from factories that refuse to provide safe working conditions.

The remarkable power of consumer pressure, unleashed in the wake of Rana Plaza, has led to the majority of major UK fashion retailers signing up, but significant exceptions remain, including Gap.

To call for better conditions for workers worldwide is not an attack on cheap clothes on our high street - faced with stagnant wages here in Britain, hikes in clothes prices are the last thing our constituents need; nor is it a denigration of the role employment in the garment sector can play in developing countries like Bangladesh, providing reliable wages and lifting many out of poverty.

There is no reason why safe working conditions and decent wages cannot sit alongside good value clothes for British customers. The majority of retailers have recognised this and are taking action. Government and consumers need to be united in encouraging those few who drag their feet to change their course.

Modern slavery, forced labour and simple exploitation of vulnerable workers is nothing new. But what is new is an ever increasing power for the international community to do something about it. That's why international workers' rights will be a core component of DFID under Labour.

The global response to Rana Plaza must be much more than simply saying 'never again'. It should be real action to protect workers around the world; to insist on a decent day's work for decent pay, under decent conditions - everywhere.

Labour MP Jim Murphy is shadow Secretary of State for International Development and Labour MP Alison McGovern is a shadow minister in the department.

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.