For the workers who toil in Bangledesh’s garment factories, making clothing for brands like Benetton, Nike and Levi’s, a number of things are taken for granted – but not basic human rights. By KHADIJA PATEL.
Getting clothes made in Bangladesh is cheap. It is the actual, human cost of manufacturing clothing in Bangladesh that is proving to be far too high. More than 600 people were killed when the Rana Plaza building just 30km outside of the capital Dhaka collapsed on April 24. The building, Rana Plaza, housed five factories that manufactured clothing for high-end brands in the West. But now, as bodies continue to emerge from the rubble, the call for a boycott of the Bangladeshi garment industry has grown stronger. Such a boycott would severely imperil the Bangladeshi economy, which has benefitted from the arrival of global businesses in search of cheap labour to keep profits high and costs low.
On April 24, the Rana Plaza building, an eight-story, concrete-and-glass building that housed at least five garment factories, near Dhaka, collapsed. The government has blamed the owners and builders of the eight-storey complex for using shoddy building materials, including sub-standard rods, bricks and cement, and not obtaining the necessary clearances.
The disaster is believed to have been triggered when generators were started up during a blackout.
The owner of the Rana Plaza building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, was arrested after a four-day hunt as he appeared to be trying to flee across the border to India.
He is one of nine people being held in connection with the disaster, which the government has blamed on the building’s faulty, illegal construction. Rana and his co-accused are now in police custody. They could each face the death penalty if found guilty of murder or mass manslaughter.
And there certainly does not appear to be much sympathy for him in Bangladesh at the moment.
A massive crowd of angry protestors chanted, “Hang him! Hang him!” as Rana arrived in a Dhaka court last Monday. He wore a bulletproof vest and a helmet for his public appearance.
Hundreds of relatives of the victims of the disaster are said to have gathered at the site of the collapse on Sunday, some holding up photographs of family members. A teenage girl broke down in tears when she recognised the body of her mother by her dress, after she was brought from the ruins.
Reuters reports that 53 bodies were recovered on Sunday and rescue workers said they could see more trapped in the rubble. While they worked, the smell of decomposing bodies hung in the air.
In the rubble of the Rana Plaza, labels from brands like Mango, Joe Fresh and United Colors of Benetton were found. Directly or indirectly, these international brands are linked with the factories producing their products.
IndustriAll Global Union General Secretary, Jyrki Raina, said in a statement, “Global clothing brands and retailers have a responsibility for their full production chains.”
South Africa’s largest trade union federation also bemoaned the lack of responsibility showed by the brands that use the Bangladeshi factories. “Blame for a series of tragedies in Bangladesh’s garment industry must be shared between ruthless factory bosses, a negligent government and Western retailers who place profits above human life,” Cosatu said in a statement last week. “Bangladesh is a grim warning of the end result of a free-for-all among employers who ruthlessly cut wages and working conditions in order to increase their profits.”
Last Monday representatives of over 40 clothing brands, or buyers, including H&M, JC Penny, C&A, Gap Inc, G-Star, Inditex, Levi’s, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Target, New Wave, Nike Inc, Primark and New Look met with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to air their concerns after the Rana Plaza collapse. “They are thinking whether the local manufacturers can make timely shipment of products following the fire incidents at Tazreen and Smart, Rana Plaza collapse, and recent political turmoil,” the Manufacturers and Exporters Association said in a statement.
“The reality is that buyers are seriously thinking about their sourcing from Bangladesh,” Jenefa Jabbar, a regional director of JC Penny, said. “Bangladesh government has laws, but there is no implementation of those laws. Buyers’ community wants to see credible action.”
The buyers are also said to have raised questions about Bangladeshi government officials who, they claim, wilfully ignore structural faults when issuing safety certificates in the buildings housing factories. Buyers and the Bangladeshi government have long passed the buck on issues of workers’ safety between them. Despite the clothing industry accounting for much of the growth in the Bangladeshi economy, working conditions at clothing factories are notoriously poor. Safety laws exist but are rarely enforced.
The buyers also stressed the need for factory owners to take immediate action to prevent a repeat of the Rana Plaza collapse. Afterwards the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association president Atiqul Islam said, “We have decided to form a committee including representatives from buyers to determine the terms of references regarding assessment of all the safety-related issues of the [Ready Made Garment] units, including their building structure.”
But even as the factories now scramble to avoid future ignominy, they are acutely aware of the need to keep the buyers happy to keep themselves relevant to the global market. They have had to plead with buyers not to slap them with penalties for any late deliveries that many ensue from the forced closure of all garment factories in the two days following the Rana Plaza collapse.
As Vijay Prashad noted in The Guardian last week, “Every second that the machines are silent costs them money. Benevolence is a costly business.”
Wedged in the middle of this fragile treaty between buyers and factory owners are the workers who drive the industry.
While companies like H&M have made strides towards transparency, releasing a list of the factories they use, they admit as well that working conditions are poor. Activists feel admission of the poor working conditions is not enough. They say that the fact that that American, or European branded goods are being produced in poor conditions means these brands are responsible for determining the conditions in which these workers make the products. At the very least, activists believe these brands should be held responsible for compensation to the families of the deceased and those injured by the building’s collapse. So too, the manufacturing and exporters association urged their buyers to contribute to compensation funds for the families of the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse.
The Bangladeshi Export Promotion Bureau, a wing of the Commerce Ministry, said has, according to Reuters, recommended paying compensation to the victims’ families and inspecting the safety of other factories.
“Right now the families of the victims are grieving and the community is in shock. But they, and the hundreds injured in the collapse, are without income and without support. Immediate relief and long-term compensation must be provided by the brands who were sourcing from these factories, and responsibility taken for their lack of action to prevent this happening,” Tessel Pauli, from Clean Clothes Campaign, says.
Last week the European Union called for immediate safety improvements in the Bangladeshi garment industry and warned they were considering changes in Bangladesh’s duty-free and quota-free status to encourage more responsible management by the industry.
At least one big American company, however, had already decided to leave Bangladesh before the Rana Plaza collapse. The Walt Disney Company was pushed by the last devastating disaster, a fire just six months ago that killed 112 people.
A Disney official told The New York Times last Wednesday that the company had sent a letter to thousands of licensees and vendors on March 4 setting out new rules for overseas production.
The garment industry has become the pulse of the Bangladeshi economy. More than 10 million people, the vast majority of whom are women, are employed in the industry, accounting for 40% of industrial employment. This industry also contributes about 75% of the total exports and 13% of GDP. With 3.6 million garment workers and more than $18 billion in apparel exports last year, Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel exporter after China.
As fears of a mass exodus of Western brands from Bangladesh escalated last week, Mohammad Fazlul Azim, a member of the Bangladesh Parliament and an influential garment factory owner, implored brands not to leave Bangladesh.
“The whole nation should not be made to suffer,” he said. “This industry is very important to us. Fourteen million families depend on this. It is a huge number of people who are dependent on this industry.”
He noted that many factories did actually comply with safety standards.
Many labour groups are also encouraging Western companies to stay in Bangladesh and fix the problems in the garment industry instead of leaving. They feel that is the responsibility of the brands, if they are going to be sourcing from countries such as Bangladesh, to put in place measures to ensure the health and safety of workers.
“The reaction in the global north to the latest ‘accident’ in Bangladesh has been to talk about boycotts – to break the global commodity chain at the point of consumption. But that is not enough,” Prashad writes. “What is needed is robust support for the workers as they try to build their own organisations at the point of production.”
There has been a flurry of activist activity to get brands like Gap and Walmart to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, and to ensure that their subcontractors pay more than the standard, barely liveable fifty-five dollars per month to their employees.
“It’s unbelievable that brands still refuse to sign a binding agreement with unions and labour groups to stop these unsafe working conditions from existing. Tragedy after tragedy shows that corporate-controlled monitoring is completely inadequate,” Pauli from Clean Clothes Campaign says.
The agreement has already been signed the US company PVH Corp (owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) and the German retailer Tchibo. The labour signatories are now calling on all major brands sourcing in the industry to sign on to the initiative in order to ensure its rapid implementation. The programme has the potential to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers currently at risk in unsafe and illegally built factories.
Some companies have taken steps on their own. In October, Gap announced a $22 million fire and building safety plan with its suppliers in Bangladesh, without identifying which factories it was using there or how many factories would be improved under the plan. And last month, Walmart pledged $1.8 million to train 2,000 Bangladesh factory managers about fire safety.
For the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, all these efforts come too late. It has made little difference to the way their lives were ended. Still, the value of the industry to the workers themselves is felt in their calls to quell talk of a boycott of the Bangladeshi industry. They fear that a boycott campaign would mean they would lose their jobs. They have travelled from remote parts of Bangladesh to work themselves out of abject poverty. DM
Photo: A woman cries as she waits for news of her relative, a garment worker who is still missing, after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, outside Dhaka May 3, 2013. Police investigating the collapse of a Bangladesh factory building that killed more than 600 people have arrested an engineer who warned the day before that the eight-storey complex was unsafe. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj
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