By Angela Oakley, Schools Volunteer
Underpinning the horror of the building collapse in Bangladesh last month that killed more than 700 people and injured over 2,500 is the realisation that this tragedy was entirely preventable. Bringing the horror even closer to home is the fact that the cheap garments that were made there and which continue to be produced by thousands of factories like it are regularly sold on our high streets and online.
The expectation of low prices for quick fashion grinds down pay and conditions for millions of workers. But on the clean and bright store floors across the country, the plight of garment workers is forgotten.
We need to think about the alternatives out there that do not have to cost life or be a burden on livelihoods. This is especially true as we successfully addressed social and environmental injustices in our industrial past. The abolition of slavery and the introduction of 19th century factory acts should serve as inspiration to search for answers to today’s problems, especially in countries where our garments and raw materials are produced.
The words of Mrunal Lahankar, an Indian cotton farmers’ representative who visited Scotland in 2012 during Fairtrade Fortnight, echo in my ears, "We can't just take, take and take from the farmer, we have to give something back. If we don't remove this imbalance in society, I do not know what will happen.”
Fairtrade and organic cotton are genuinely improving social, environmental and economic conditions for workers. Without it, harmful practices such as child and forced labour, pesticide deaths, the downward trend in cotton prices and unsustainable farming techniques will continue to be faced by producers before the cotton is even spun.
The Forum’s Fairtrade Cotton Schoolwear Campaign has been helping schools to switch to Fairtrade cotton school uniforms. Work-wear is another area which is taking cues from the schoolwear example; following input from the East Dunbartonshire Fair Trade Group, Scotland Excel’s new national contract for personal protective equipment allows councils to source products more ethically.
Fair Trade campaigners across Scotland are well placed to take these efforts forward. The Forum has Stock-it cards which can be passed to supermarkets and suppliers to encourage them to stock Fairtrade cotton schoolwear – ask the office for some.
Now is also the time to check that Scottish Councils are procuring ethically and to speak with MSPs and MEPs about procurement legislation. The European Parliament refused to give consent to an upgrade in trade relations with Uzbekistan because of the appalling situation where adults and children are forced into working in the cotton fields during the harvest.
So let’s repeat the coldest of all these facts; the Bangladeshi tragedy was entirely preventable and, sadly, almost certain to be repeated if current buying habits continue. We have the choice to pull on the inspiration of past reformers to provide answers to stop the rot. That is what a Fair Trade Nation would do.