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

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder