Last Wednesday’s collapse of the Rana Plaza on the outskirts of Dhaka over 400 people dead, mostly young women, and the death toll may rise as more bodies are pulled from the building’s mangled wreckage. Over a thousand workers have been injured, some gravely, in what is the garment industry’s deadliest accident to date. The incident sparked violent protests in Bangladesh, and arrests have been made, but whether there will be real accountability and subsequent reforms to avoid future calamities remains to be seen.
After temporary closure of the complex on the preceding Tuesday, the owners re-opened the factory the next morning despite warnings that the building was structurally compromised. At the sight of obvious danger, including cracks in the building, and on the advice of union leaders and safety experts, garment workers balked at entering the building. Perhaps the workers believed the false reassurances that the building was safe to enter. But many of the workers who returned to work despite their apprehension were told that if the factory failed to produce and delivers its wares, cash flow would be interrupted and the owners would not be able to pay the workers their wages for the month. With no other source of income, desperate workers had no real choice, although shop and bank employees working on the building did not report to work on Wednesday.
This tragedy could have been prevented if Bangladesh exercised adequate regulatory oversight over its 5000 factories, or if Bangladesh had a strong history of collective bargaining, but none of the workers in the Rana Plaza Building belonged to a union. Although Bangladesh provides some legal protections for workers, the climate for trade union rights remains appalling, andharassment of those attempting to organize unions is widespread. In April of 2012, tireless and politically targeted labor activistAminul Islam was tortured and murdered, and no arrests have been made, sending an ominous signal to others fighting the uphill battle for the protection of workers in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is now the world’s second largest exporter of garments, which comprise 80% of the country’s exports. Enjoying a competitive advantage over other countries paying lowest wages, Bangladesh’s garment workers make between 17 and 26 cents an hour. Working conditions in many factories are abysmal. Since 1990, industrial accidents in Bangladesh have resulted in 1,071 fatalities and 3,127 injuries in 279 separate incidents, not including the most recent calamity. This tragedy sparked global outrage, especially coming closely on the heels of a November fire in the Tazreen factory in Savar that killed 112 workers and injured scores of others who were unable to flee the burning building, in part because emergency exits were locked. Already rickety buildings reach toward the sky to add floors that can accommodate yet more businesses that generate increased profits, with no attention to safety. Several of the upper floors in the Rana building were constructed without permits. In the wake of the November fire, labor advocates proposed comprehensive reform for safety standards through the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Agreement, though the response has been tepid thus far.
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Although Walmart was reportedly the Tazreen factory’s largest purchaser, the company refused to provide compensation to the victims, claiming it was unaware that a subcontractor procured services there. Walmart has since announced a “zero tolerance policy” for subcontractors, though its efficacy remains untested. However, one report noted that some Bangladeshi business with higher standards subcontract to those with abysmal conditions. The mechanics of the global supply chain leads some analysts to argue that the system of subcontracting provides large retailers with political cover and plausible deniability, so that in the wake of such tragedies, companies can respond with incredulity about factory conditions. As long as retailers are focused on cost and speed and impervious to the appalling conditions under which garments are produced, more tragedies are likely.
Bangladesh has made strides in alleviating poverty, though many challenges remain. The current development orthodoxy is underpinned by an unquestioned faith that the potential of unbridled capitalism will inure to the benefit of the world’s poor. The underlying premise is that free markets will generate economic development that will ultimately lift poor countries out of poverty. Countries desperate for economic development face understandable tension in balancing the need to protect impoverished workers with the incentives that lure large retailers or their subcontractors to take advantage of lax safety standards and other sweatshop conditions. The Bangladeshi government claims it wants to improve conditions but is mindful of the potential economic impact of heightened standards for millions who rely on those jobs. Those considerations are real, but the government cannot sacrifice safety at the altar of economic development. Further impeding efforts to improve working conditions is that many factory owners are either members of Parliament or of political parties. Theories of economic development are inseparable from those who are enriched by them.
The Rana calamity, which occurs against the backdrop of the global sweatshop industry, highlights the importance of fostering solidarity among social movements challenging the structure of low wage markets and advocating for accountability for the conditions of work on an international scale. One progressive commentator elicited derision for suggesting that it was entirely appropriate for poor countries to embrace lower safety and labor standards, arguing that workers in the developing world individually an collectively engage in a cost-benefit calculus and voluntarily accept the risks attendant to garment industry factories in order to earn enough to fend off starvation. Critics counter that countries in the global south must avoid a race to the bottom, in which countries are pitted against each other in every decreasing wages and safety standards.
The economically, geographically and socially disenfranchised garment workers in Bangladesh need multi-stakeholder support. The US government can play a role. The US-based labor organization AFL-CIO filed a petition asking the US government to consider withdrawing, suspending or limiting Bangladesh’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preference, over concerns about workers’ rights and safety issues. A delegation from Bangladesh argued its case on March 28, 2013, and the US can use this opportunity to demand enhanced protections for Bangladesh’s vulnerable workforce. Free trade agreements can include protections for vulnerable workers instead of just focusing on capital and markets. Retailers can be pressured to ensure the integrity of their global supply chain by consumers demanding that garments are produced in humane conditions. Social movements can identify the ways in which their interests are intertwined and work in solidarity across borders. Various international workers' rights initiatives can help create a floor of decent standards across the globe to protect the next country targeted for its exploitable labor force, and create a floor below which the race to the bottom cannot descend. Hopefully, the horrifying carnage surrounding this tragedy will galvanize a coordinated international response to the treacherous conditions on which the supply chain for the garment industry is often predicated.