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Written by Daniah Ishtiaq  •  Region  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

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.

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 every 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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