Occupying a primetime spot on BBC 2 last night, Clothes To Die For looked back at the Bangladesh Rana Plaza disaster, the story of a building housing clothes factories that collapsed in April 2013, killing more than 1,100 of its workers.
The BBC This World documentary reignited the horror of the large-scale disaster through first-hand accounts from its survivors, each telling their story of the sequence of events before and after the Dhaka building collapsed. Rather than simply skimming over the events as told by a narrator, we heard from the perspective of those at the epicentre of the event. Such simple touches make Clothes To Die For not just another documentary about globalisation but a harrowing account that manages to tug at the usually untouched heartstrings of British viewers. In this case, simplicity was key.
In the opening credits we are greeted with naïve female survivors explaining how workers liked to imagine if the Western girls wearing the clothes they produced were beautiful, or thought about the women that produced them. This is juxtaposed with Western fashion vloggers showing off their recent clothing hauls from extravagant shopping sprees, discussing how they bought items in two different colours because they were so cheap. The scene is immediately set for the documentary, a blatant display of the West’s demands for cheap clothing regardless of the consequences on producers.
Often deemed the worst industrial disaster of the 21st century, the Rana Plaza disaster highlights the strain on the Bangladesh garment industry to mass-produce clothing for Western buyers. This leads to safety regulations being ignored and shortcuts being taken in order to cut costs and effectively complete orders. We learn how Sohel Rana, the owner of the Rana Plaza building did exactly that, bribing government official friends to grant him planning permission that breached safety regulations. He built three additional floors that hung over the existing structure – a disaster waiting to happen.
Survivors tell how those trapped in the building drank their own urine, and bit into their own flesh, sucking blood from their bodies in order to survive. We hear how one survivor used an axe to amputate her lower arm, and then are greeted with the image of what remains. Such stories succeed in plaguing us with an unavoidable sense of guilt; 1134 people died working to produce cheap garments that we dispose of without hesitation.
Rather than being fed an opinion from a narrator, we are left to make their own judgements from the words of survivors and those involved in the Bangladesh clothing industry. The rather blunt words of a Bangladeshi factory owner, the daughter of man who pioneered Bangladesh garment industry, during the final few minutes of the documentary reiterate the desperation of the situation: “We need 5 cent more on each garment,” a reminder that the Bangladesh garment industry cannot survive, nor improve working conditions, without higher payments from Western buyers. But what price are they willing to pay?