Bangladesh Tag Trail

The re­cent fac­tory fire in Bangladesh has once again raised con­cerns of work­ers’ safety and has sparked the at­ten­tion of in­ter­na­tional la­bor groups to de­mand ac­count­abil­ity from ma­jor brands and coun­tries that pro­vide cheap la­bor.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Da­niah Ish­tiaq

Will Bangladesh fol­low in­ter­na­tional safety stan­dards for gar­ment work­ers be­fore its too late?

On April 24, 2013, fam­ily mem­bers waited with baited breath out­side a pile of rub­ble, crushed ma­chin­ery and trapped bod­ies, some stand­ing for up to seven days to hear news of their loved ones. The rub­ble is what re­mained of an eight-story build­ing known as the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. As emer­gency ser­vices strug­gled to res­cue trapped sur­vivors and pull out the dead, sto­ries emerged re­gard­ing the work­ing con­di­tions that were ram­pant in­side the build­ing, com­pris­ing five gar­ment fac­to­ries. Sources stated that large cracks had ap­peared on the walls the day be­fore and em­ploy­ees had been warned not to work. How­ever, man­agers forced the work­ers to con­tinue. This is not the first in­ci­dent in Bangladesh as fac­tory fires and struc­tural fail­ures have oc­curred a num­ber of times be­fore. This is, how­ever, con­sid­ered to be the dead­li­est build­ing col­lapse in re­cent his­tory. The in­ci­dent has raised in­ter­na­tional con­cerns over Bangladesh’s abil­ity to en­sure worker’s safety. Some 1,127 in­di­vid­u­als per­ished that day and nearly 2,500 were in­jured.

The Bangladesh govern­ment’s en­force­ment of both la­bor and safety laws is weak, bor­der­ing on non-ex­is­tent. Ali Ahmed Khan, the head of the Bangladesh Fire Ser­vice & Civil De­fense, has stated that the up­per four floors of the Rana Plaza had been built with­out a per­mit, while Ma­sood Reza, the ar­chi­tect stated that the struc­ture was not meant to house fac­to­ries. Two of the five Bangladeshi fac­to­ries that were in the build­ing had cleared an au­dit by the Busi­ness So­cial Com­pli­ance Ini­tia­tive, set up a decade ago by the Brus­sels-based For­eign Trade As­so­ci­a­tion, an en­tity com­pris­ing well-known retailers such as Hugo Boss and Adi­das. The BSCI stated that its au­di­tors are not build­ing engi­neers and did not take the state of the ed­i­fice into ac­count when they con­ducted the checks. While they agreed that they can con­trib­ute to safety, they were of the opin­ion that it is up to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to en­sure that con­struc­tion and in­fra­struc­ture are safe.

Within hours of the col­lapse, the United Na­tions of­fered its as­sis­tance to send ex­pert res­cue teams with dogs, mi­cro-cam­eras and other equip­ment to the site but Dhaka au­thor­i­ties promptly re­fused the of­fer. It later also came to light that the govern­ment had re­jected of­fers of in­ter­na­tional search and res­cue as­sis­tance, in­clud­ing a for­mal of­fer of send­ing a team of spe­cial­ists from Bri­tain. In­ter­na­tional au­thor­i­ties main­tain that the Bangladeshi govern­ment was slow to re­spond to their re­peated of­fers be­fore putting them down.

In a coun­try like Bangladesh, the sub­stan­dard work­ing en­vi­ron­ment that gar­ment fac­tory work­ers are con­fronted with is the dark side of the glob­al­iza­tion suc­cess story. Bangladesh has be­come one of the world’s lead­ing ex­porters of cloth­ing and has thereby gen­er­ated mil­lions of jobs. Th­ese have, in turn pro­vided nu­tri­tion, hous­ing and ed­u­ca­tion for some of the poor­est peo­ple on earth. The in­dus­try has been re­fash­ioned and en­gi­neered in a way that suits the sourc­ing model of in­ter­na­tional busi­ness which la­bor ad­vo­cates call pro­foundly ex­ploita­tive, as it courts for­eign in­vestors with some of the world’s cheap­est skilled work­ers.

What Bangladesh needs to re­al­ize is that soon the tag of ‘Made in Bangladesh’ may sig­nify la­bor ex­ploita­tion to the out­side world and for a coun­try heav­ily de­pen­dent on such ex­ports, this needs to be taken with a sense of fore­bod­ing. This is not to say that busi­nesses will di­vert their re­sources to coun­tries with la­bor safety laws but they may be in­clined to shift to coun­tries with cheap pro­duc­tion mod­els sim­i­lar to Bangladesh so that their brand names are not dragged into dirt due to in­dus­trial prob­lems.

Re­gard­less of the lack of ac­tion on the govern­ment’s part, the National Gar­ment Work­ers Fed­er­a­tion (NGWF) in Bangladesh re­cently held a press con­fer­ence in Dhaka to mark the one

month an­niver­sary of the col­lapse of the build­ing which killed mostly fe­male gar­ment work­ers as well as the fire that struck the Tazreen fac­tory killing 123 work­ers. The pres­i­dent of the trade union, Amirul Haque Amin laid out the trade unions’ de­mands in the af­ter­math of the disas­ter and called on in­ter­na­tional brands to share the re­spon­si­bil­ity for build­ing safer work­places. The Union’s opin­ion is that the onus of such tragedies does not only lie on the govern­ment and the fac­tory own­ers but in­ter­na­tional stake­hold­ers as well. De­mands have been made to the in­ter­na­tional brands and retailers that source from the fac­to­ries in­volved in the dis­as­ters. It was stated that ev- ery com­pany that bought from the Tazreen fac­tory and the other fac­to­ries in the Rana Plaza must pro­vide full com­pen­sa­tion for lost earn­ings to the in­jured and the fam­i­lies of those who died. Wal-Mart and Gap were sin­gled out dur­ing the con­fer­ence for their fail­ure to sign the Bangladesh Safety Ac­cord to en­sure safety for work­ers

across Bangladesh.

Amidst the re­ver­ber­a­tions of the Rana Plaza disas­ter, in­ter­na­tional la­bels are scram­bling to pro­tect their rep­u­ta­tions, de­vot­ing sub­stan­tial en­ergy and time to the cause. Cer­tain ma­jor Euro­pean brands pledged to abide by a legally bind­ing pack­age of fac­tory stan­dards aimed at im­prov­ing work­place safety in Bangladesh. This is the ef­fort that Wal­mart has de­clined to par­tic­i­pate in while an­nounc­ing its own pro­gram to boost worker safety.

If Bangladesh con­tin­ues to be lax about its safety mea­sures, the num­ber of un­safe work­ers will only grow ren­der­ing a lot of fam­i­lies des­o­late. As op­pres­sive as the con­di­tions may seem, for many la­bor­ers the gar­ment busi­ness is their only source of in­come and sur­vival and they would rather see the in­dus­try stay and raise its stan­dards than be shut down al­to­gether.

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