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October 22, 2014
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The Rana Plaza factory building in Savar collapses on April 23, 2013, killing at least 324 people. Source: bostonherald.com.

It has been well-documented over the years that garment production has been largely transferred into the hands of developing countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh, BRIC nations, as well as upcoming EU-27 member states such as Bulgaria and Romania. 

The money involved reaches bewildering heights; in 2011, Chinese customs statistics revealed that combined textile and garment exports for the year had reached US$247.89 bn, up 20.04 per cent year on year. However, alongside this rapid growth are poor working conditions, low wages, cowboy operators, corrupt governments and a catalogue of catastrophes. 

A young man cries out at the scene of
the Rana Plaza factory building collapse.
Source: news.com.au.

Take Bangladesh, for example - the world's second largest apparel exporter. Media outlets have been consumed with news that the Rana Plaza factory building in Savar had collapsed, killing at least 324 people. It came almost eight years to the day since 64 lives were lost in the Spectrum factory collapse in nearby capital, Dhaka. In November 2000, a locked gate prevented 52 people, including children, from escaping a blaze at the Sagar Chowdhury Garment Factory in Narsingdi. The list goes on.

Such tragic disasters have been occurring systematically in many developing countries, and as such it's even possible to draw up a timeline of events. It has left many asking about the true price being paid by developing countries for the developed world's demand for cut-price clothing. 

The Financial Times claimed the most recent garment factory collapse was "a stark reminder that in a world where consumers demand ever lower prices, the cost of a bargain can be too high." Meanwhile, Anna McMullen reported for CNN that "brands continue to look for ways to race to the bottom on prices, and sadly this involves cutting corners on health and safety."

Calls upon our collective conscience are being blasted by many channels: the insatiable demand for low-cost clothing is inflicting near-certain disaster upon innocent lives by letting them continue working in dangerous factory conditions. These cries are valid and, undoubtedly, labour laws and workplace safety legislation need to change and be enforced as a matter of priority. 

As The Guardian reported last Thursday, "NGOs have called on Primark, whose supplier Simple Approach occupied the second floor of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building that collapsed, to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement." Similarly, as McMullen explained, "The Clean Clothes Campaign, together with local and global unions and labour rights organisations, has developed a program that hopes to solve [these safety problems]. The Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Agreement is a proposal for a sector-wide initiative that includes independent building inspections, worker rights training, public disclosure and a long-overdue review of safety standards."

 In an interview with the BBC's Bengali Service, senior government official Mainuddin Khondker admitted that he believed, '50 [per cent] of garment factories are located on premises which are not safe.' However, he 'admitted no action had ever been taken against a factory for violation of safety rules, inadequate fire safety or, indeed, against landlords for violation of building codes.'

However, putting an end to such tragedies isn't simply a case of changing safety legislation. In an interview with the BBC's Bengali Service, senior government official Mainuddin Khondker admitted that he believed, "50 [per cent] of garment factories are located on premises which are not safe." However, he "admitted no action had ever been taken against a factory for violation of safety rules, inadequate fire safety or, indeed, against landlords for violation of building codes." How can workers ever trust that officials are abiding by legislation - either new or old - when bad management and corruption is rife?

Even with the recent Rana Plaza factory collapse, Dhaka city officials claim they had issued a permit to the building's owner, Mr. Rana, without seeking the necessary permission from a municipal safety-compliance regulator. According to Mr. Rana the day before the tragedy, the building would stand "for another 100 years." As Mustafa surmises for the BBC, "the garments industry appears to be wrapped in a culture of impunity."

Similarly, there is still the thorny business of tackling government and industrial cooperation within the enforcement of such legislation. As Mustafa commented, there is a vast political underbelly to this debate: "the government treats the garments industry as a strategic asset to be protected at all costs [...] A number of factory owners have gone into politics, gaining seats in parliament, becoming ministers, with many BGMEA [Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association] joining two major political parties." In fact, "Garments entrepreneurs are reputed to be some of the most generous financiers of political parties." 

It's tempting to turn this issue into a simple question of humanity versus economy; when we distance ourselves from cultural relativism and the pervading sense of what seems like the obvious course of action, the solutions suddenly become far less clear. As Sabir Mustafa, editor of the BBC Bengali Service, explained in his report for the BBC earlier this week, "There is a good reason why the ready-made garments sector is treated as the sacred cow of Bangladesh's economy. From a humble beginning in the early 1980s, the industry has grown into a [US]$20bn business that accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the country's export earnings."

Mustafa continues, "But more importantly perhaps for this poor, conservative Muslim nation, the industry has created jobs for four million workers, four-fifths of whom are women. Millions of young girls from poor families have found jobs in this industry, helping them to break out of a life of dependency and grinding poverty." Although this change in circumstances is largely relative - millions of workers still face dire living conditions - it is tentative footsteps in the right direction. 

This is the part of the debate that is so often forgotten. For many Western consumers, the solution to corruption and cowboy operating is to simply not buy into the low-cost clothing industry. However, if consumers in the West suddenly stop buying from countries such as Bangladesh on these grounds, where does that leave the millions of workers relying on their monthly average income of US$37? How can these same people continue to feed their families if we stop buying their largest export, all because we feel as though we're doing them a favour? At the end of the day, whose conscience would we really be clearing?

...if consumers in the West suddenly stop buying from countries such as Bangladesh on these grounds, where does that leave the millions of workers relying on their monthly average income of US$37?

The demand for low-cost clothing has unquestionably led to poor working conditions, low wages and corrupted establishments. However, it is important to remember that this same work has given millions of workers a wage and the chance to break out from the hamster wheel of abject poverty. 

Slow change does appear to be occurring, however; this past week has seen various protests ensue across Bangladesh, while the Junior Home Minister, Shamsul Haque Tuku, told The Independent that police had arrested Bazlus Samad, the managing director of New Wave Apparels Ltd. who was based in the Rana Plaza factory, as well as the company chairman, Mahmudur Rahman Tapash. Police have also detained Imtemam Hossain and Alam Ali, who are thought to have played a role in approving the building's design. Similarly, the wife of Mr. Raza was arrested in an attempt to pressure her husband, who is currently on the run, to surrender himself to police.

It is clear from these five arrests that the cries of protest which filled the streets of Bangladesh this week were finally heard. While there is no ready-made solution to this fragile debate, it is even clearer now then ever before that countries such as Bangladesh need improved safety legislation to protect workers - not only from faulty buildings and dangerous working practices, but also from the corrupt governments and cowboy operators who are at the heart of this problem. One wonders, come Monday, whether or not it will be business as usual for the reported 5,000 other garment factories in Bangladesh.

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