Why Big Fashion Labels Shouldn’t Pull Out of Bangladesh

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MARK BLINCH / REUTERS

Galen Weston, Executive Chairman of Loblaw Companies Limited, speaks during the annual general shareholders' meeting in Toronto, May 2, 2013. The company owns fashion brand Joe Fresh. Joe Fresh had garments supplied by the now collapsed factory in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Nine days after the fatal collapse of a garment-factory building on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, hundreds of photos of missing persons are still plastered to the walls of the Enam Medical College and Hospital. Exhausted relatives hold up pictures of their loved ones, showing them to passersby in the corridors in the hopes that somebody will have spotted them. At least 3,500 garment workers were inside the multistory Rana Plaza building when it crumpled in on itself on April 24. As of Wednesday, more than 430 people had been pulled dead from the rubble, and while officials say the number of missing is less than 150, many believe it is much higher.

For the hundreds of survivors still recuperating in Enam, the terror of lying for days among dead co-workers is rivaled only by the fear of what lies ahead. Many have had one or more limbs broken or amputated and will be disabled for life, unable to continue working in one of the few industries in Bangladesh that offers regular — if dangerous — employment. The government has promised victims’ families compensation and the survivors future jobs, but workers who have been the financial lifeline of entire households are not comforted. Sujan Roy, a 22-year-old packaging worker, was found buried in the rubble five hours after the building collapsed, and has since had a gangrenous leg amputated. His job at the doomed factory building provided his family’s only source of income and helped send his younger sisters to school. “Now what will happen to them?” he wonders aloud. “Who will give me a job now?”

(PHOTOS: Hundreds Dead as Garment Factory in Bangladesh Collapses)

The Rana Plaza collapse is the not the first avoidable tragedy in Bangladesh’s booming garment industry, nor is it likely to be the last. Just a few months back, in November, 112 workers were killed in a deadly blaze at the Tazreen Fashions factory, where clothes were being produced for global companies like Walmart and Sears. While this latest disaster has kicked off a fresh round of shaming of the global clothing brands that continue to do business with unsafe factories, the larger concern for many people in Bangladesh is what will happen if they pull out. Citing safety concerns, the Walt Disney Co. decided shortly before the Rana tragedy that it would cease production in Bangladesh. Many other brands have been reviewing health and safety issues in light of the disaster.

But for the people recovering in hospital beds in Enam — and for the men and women who went to work this morning in Bangladesh’s thousands of other garment factories — the manufacturing opportunities offered by the big brands mean that million of households can be supported. “We need to be careful now not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says Sara Hossain, a high-court lawyer in Bangladesh. “The question should not be shutting down the factories. It should be, How do you make employment safe and secure?”

Bangladesh’s ready-made-garment (RMG) sector has been an important source of jobs since the mid-1990s. The industry’s employment rate grew about 5% a year from 1995 to 2005, and though industry watchers predicted that it would taper off, the number of workers employed grew by about 11% per year from 2005 until today. At present, the industry employs somewhere between 3.6 million and 4 million people, and Bangladesh has become the world’s second largest garment producer after China.

(MORE: Dying for Some New Clothes: Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza Tragedy)

The country continues to attract big fashion labels by keeping costs — like workers’ wages — low. Though more men have started working in Bangladesh’s roughly 4,000 factories in recent years, the majority of the workforce has always been women, particularly women with little education from rural areas where there are scant, if any, employment opportunities. Once they get to the capital, their chief options are to look for work in the garment factories, to become domestic helpers or to find casual laboring jobs in construction, says Rushidan Islam Rahman, research director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. The garment factories pay the most and carry a certain cachet for that reason, despite the safety issues. “Young men and women with a few years of schooling consider that the RMG [sector] gives them more independence and [makes them] more socially acceptable,” Rahman adds.

At the same time, there have been urgent and persistent calls for reform that are now amplified in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy. “People have been dying [in garment factories] for the last 10 years,” says Fayazuddin Ahmad, a director in Dhaka for Action Aid, a workers’-rights group. After a string of deadly fires in the late 1990s, Ahmad says, the country’s high court clamped down on the industry, ruling that factories that did not comply with safety measures would not be allowed to continue to produce. But, he says, “the implementation of that [ruling] is very poor,” and, as evidenced by last week’s tragedy when a fault in the building’s structure was identified and ignored, the mechanisms designed to ensure that factory owners comply with safety regulations is “getting worse and worse.”

Who needs to answer for that failure is — and will continue to be — a matter of debate in and outside of Bangladesh. While Western activists have railed against global brands for what they see as complicity in the conditions in Bangladesh, some argue that the focus on the private sector lets the government off too easy. “It’s the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens. It’s not the brands’ responsibility to do that,” says Alonzo Suson, the Bangladesh country director for the Solidarity Center, a labor-rights organization. Suson agrees that private companies should make sure their local partners are compliant with safety standards. “But it’s not correct to say everything is the brands’ problem.”

(MORE: Bangladesh Factory Collapse Will Force Companies to Rethink Outsourced Manufacturing)

In the days since the incident, the government and industry groups have mustered a greater response than usual. Prime Minister Sheik Hasina visited the scene of the collapse, promising that survivors would be cared for and that artificial limbs would be provided for amputees. In an unusual move, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association, an industrial group of garment-factory owners, suspended the membership of five factories housed in Rana Plaza, making it illegal for them to import raw materials or export their products. “We suspended the activities of the factories because they remained open despite shutdown instructions,” Reaz-Bin-Mahmood, vice president of the association, said at a press briefing. “We want legal action against whoever is responsible for the tragedy.” (The owner of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, has already been brought before a court and had his assets seized.)

If safety standards are not corrected, and big brands do decide to pull out, it will be everyone’s problem. Ahmad of Action Aid says it’s “frustrating” to watch the industry’s shortsightedness when it comes to safety compliance. “This is one of the major sectors of our economy,” he says. “If production is taken away from here, it would have a huge impact on the economy and people’s lives.” But like many of the collapse survivors, he has little hope that even a disaster of this scale will bring lasting change. In the hospital in Dhaka, Parveen Akhter, a garment worker whose leg was broken, is also skeptical of the government’s promises. “No one will remember us,” she says, “once the situation cools down.”

MORE: Viewpoint on Bangladesh Disaster: It’s Not All About the West

11 comments
dgdoesstuff
dgdoesstuff

So... if the US retailers pull out, then Bangladeshis will make no money? So maybe they'll grow 2 brain cells to rub together and stop having kids they can't afford? I wish... 

azmalhome
azmalhome

who are working in garment-factory of the Bangladesh as general worker.  most of them are living in the slum, and also they're unable to buy well food. because them salary are so low, but manager salary are higher like richest country. manager also get good commission every year

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com

kolagunta
kolagunta like.author.displayName 1 Like

US retailers are making huge profits from the sale of garments made in Bangladesh. This is the case with other US tech firms getting goods made in China. In most cases there are widespread human rights violations taking place at the producing ends, by way of excess working hours, inhuman environment, unsafe infrastructure and many more. The buyers of the goods have been turning a blind eye. The producing countries are only looking at the income generated, which, ofcourse is a dire need for them. There are also similar cases with respect to India, where child labour is the problem. The current thinking on the part of the buyers to stop trading will only create a bigger human rights problem. Instead the buyers and their governments should initiate actions to improve the wages and working conditions of the people involved in producing the goods. The producing countries should be compelled to provide proper infrastructure for which compulsory funding should be organized through an international agency like the UN. For example in India the children are the bread earners of the family. Instead of stopping them from working which will lead to a clamity, the children should be provided with part time education and  nutricious food at the work place apart from physical activities. All these should come out of the funding from the International agency, the buyers and the producing governments. The buyers can comfortably meet their part of thefunding from te profits.

RaviPG
RaviPG like.author.displayName 1 Like

The article omits to Mention that Loblaws' executive chairman has promised to compensate the workers and to make building safety an essential part of vendor audit. I have yet to hear any other international label say what they plan to do for the affected workers now and in the future. Taking the production of their products to another country is no solution. 

quatra
quatra

I, as a consumer, decide. I don't buy clothing made in Asia anymore and prefer paying more rather than selling my soul as Hindus and other hypocrite Asian religions do who value a cow more than a human being.


pendragon05
pendragon05

How about providing American workers with garment factory jobs?

NamecNassianer
NamecNassianer

Ahmad of Action Aid says “If production is taken away from here, it would have a huge impact on ...people’s lives.”

As big an impact as being crushed and suffocated to death?

Dhakaiya
Dhakaiya like.author.displayName 1 Like

@NamecNassianer No. Such as giving them economic freedom- at least enough to not starve to death. Bangladesh has half the population of USA in roughly the area of Georgia- it is the most densely populated country in the world and most of its recent economic strides comes from the textiles industry. While things are still poor- they are better than ever. At least thanks to textiles the country can dream of a more prosperous future- Bangladesh's life expectancy and infant mortality already fare better than her Indian neighbors. Take textiles away and the country will go back to where it was- mass starvation and infants dying in year from birth. 

quatra
quatra

@Dhakaiya @NamecNassianer This is political issue. If your government cannot enforce building rules, putting it's people in danger of dying being burried or starving, that's it where the EU is concerned. Get your act together and we'll buy. If not, I as a consumer, will not buy your products.

 

Dhakaiya
Dhakaiya

@quatra @Dhakaiya @NamecNassianer Yes, this is a political issue. As is Guantanamo prison etc. Every country has its negative side. One factory collapsing does not indicate the entire state of over 10,000 factories employing 4 million people. While this is not by any means excusable, the fact is the EU companies are not the shining beacons of ethics either- the poor conditions are often exactly the reason they come here as they have to pay less. For a t-shirt that costs $40 to the customer, a typical Bangladeshi manufacturer receives $2. If they really were concerned about "ethics" they would pay fair prices so the manufacturers could extend fair wages. Unfortunately- they too are more interested in "profits" as like many of the manufacturers.