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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war