WILL BANGLADESH’S AP­PAREL IN­DUS­TRY MAKE THE CUT?

Mint ST - - POLITICS - Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s pre­vi­ous col­umns at livemint.com/root­cause

Re­mem­ber Rana Plaza? The col­lapse of that sweat­shop com­plex in a Dhaka sub­urb in April 2013 that killed more than 1,000 peo­ple, mostly gar­ment work­ers, and in­jured more than 2,500; that ex­posed cul­pa­bil­ity of some of the world’s top brands and re­tail chains; that be­came a busi­ness and hu­man rights cause célèbre for clean­ing up sup­ply chains and for clean­ing up Bangladesh’s labour and safety laws, and their ap­pli­ca­tion to pro­tect the coun­try’s gar­ment ex­ports sec­tor—ac­count­ing for about 80% of its ex­ports?

On 29 Au­gust, the build­ing’s owner and one of the key ac­cused So­hel Rana was sen­tenced—the first sen­tence to any of the Rana Plaza ac­cused—to three years in prison for not sub­mit­ting his state­ment of wealth to the gov­ern­ment anti-cor­rup­tion watch­dog.

It’s seem­ingly bizarre, this sen­tenc­ing, when Rana stands ac­cused of a range of crimes from mur­der and vi­o­lat­ing build­ing codes to graft, il­le­gal pos­ses­sion of weapons, and nar­cotics—in a face-sav­ing move the gov­ern­ment ba­si­cally threw the rule book at him and sev­eral other ac­cused. But in a way it’s sym­bolic of the man­ner in which re­me­dial ac­tion has fol­lowed the avoid­able tragedy of the col­lapse, and ex­tends from es­tab­lish­ing the guilt of those in­volved to bet­ter and safer work­ing con­di­tions. With less than a year to go for dead­lines to fix the sec­tor’s ills, the ob­ject les­son that ex­tends be­yond Bangladesh to all “sweat­shop coun­tries”, in­clud­ing In­dia, is hardly grat­i­fy­ing.

By July 2013 some US re­tail gi­ants and brands in­clud­ing Aber­crom­bie and Fitch Co. and Fruit of the Loom ap­peared to have re­sisted their ini­tial cut-and-run im­pulse ad­vo­cated by free trade gu­rus and adopted a so­lu­tion-led ap­proach of their Euro­pean peers (Adi­das, Mango, and Marks and Spencer among these). To­gether they signed an agree­ment called The Ac­cord on Fire and Build­ing Safety In Bangladesh. This bind­ing ac­cord had more than 70 gar­ment sourc­ing sig­na­to­ries on board, be­sides Bangladeshi and global work­ers’ unions and hu­man rights watch­dogs. (See the full list here bit.ly/2goxk5u).

That man­dated a re­view of com­pli­ance in var­i­ous fac­to­ries in Bangladesh. “Ini­tial in­spec­tions at ev­ery fac­tory will be com­pleted at the lat­est within nine months,” re­ported the watch­dog Clean Clothes Cam­paign, a for­mal wit­ness to the ac­cord, “and plans for ren­o­va­tions and re­pairs put in place where nec­es­sary. These will fo­cus on those issues that pose grave and im­me­di­ate risks to work­ers…,” like fire safety plans and the struc­tural in­tegrity of fac­to­ries. For starters, sig­na­to­ries among re­tail­ers had to de­clare fa­cil­i­ties they use in Bangladesh.

A sec­ond ac­cord, not bind­ing—that is, it is vol­un­tary and free from third-party over­sight—was called The Al­liance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. This mainly Us-re­tailer ef­fort was “led”, said the watch­dog Cor­p­watch, by Wal-mart and Gap (cloth­ing marked for Wal-mart was dis­cov­ered in the rub­ble of the eight­storey Rana Plaza). With its non-bind­ing na­ture, this sec­ond ac­cord ap­peared to be more pub­lic re­la­tions pro­phy­lac­tic than mean­ing­ful re­me­dial ac­tion, but un­de­ni­ably, ev­ery ef­fort would be a step up from the hor­rific gaps that ex­isted.

In De­cem­ber 2015, though, a study pub­lished by The Cen­ter for Busi­ness and Hu­man Rights at New York Univer­sity’s Stern School of Busi­ness—be­yond the Tip of the Ice­berg: Bangladesh’s For­got­ten Ap­parel Work­ers—shone some sharp light on matters. The au­thors, Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Bau­mann-pauly, claimed among other things that even after 3,425 in­spec­tions by track­ers of the Ac­cord, the Al­liance and over­seers In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion, “only eight fac­to­ries have passed fi­nal in­spec­tion”.

As I read, they also pointed out that the Ac­cord and the Al­liance cov­ered just a little over a quar­ter of the gar­ment fac­to­ries in Bangladesh, as most are “in­for­mal fac­to­ries” which take on work down a sub-con­tract­ing chain; some aren’t even reg­is­tered with the gov­ern­ment or known to over­seas buy­ers.

An ar­ti­cle this May by Gil­lian White in The At­lantic of­fered a cri­tique of the Stern School re­port, quot­ing ob­servers to say the re­port may have over-stated the num­ber of fac­to­ries and work­ers. The ar­ti­cle, how­ever, un­der­scored the re­port’s point that has seized all prac­ti­tion­ers in the sec­tor—buy­ers, ex­porters, unions, watch­dogs—that the July 2018 dead­line for sub­stan­tially im­prov­ing con­di­tions in Bangladesh’s gar­ment in­dus­try would work, let alone—as White’s ar­ti­cle men­tions, quot­ing a glob­al­iza­tion ex­pert at Univer­sity of Vir­ginia—that all fac­to­ries would be “fully re­me­di­ated”.

Those that don’t make the cut could sim­ply slip into the grey zone of the in­for­mal sec­tor, and Bangladesh’s still-sus­pect over­sight: The gov­ern­ment has dragged its feet pros­e­cut­ing labour and build­ing safety of­fi­cials.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books in­clude Clear.hold.build: Hard Lessons of Busi­ness and Hu­man Rights in In­dia, Red Sun: Trav­els in Nax­alite Coun­try and High­way 39: Jour­neys through a Frac­tured Land. This col­umn, which fo­cuses on con­flict sit­u­a­tions and the con­ver­gence of busi­nesses and hu­man rights, runs on Thurs­days.

Re­spond to this col­umn at root­cause@livemint.com

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