Why Big Fashion Labels Shouldn’t Pull Out of Bangladesh

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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