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Rana Plaza fall exposes underbelly of B'desh garment industry

Kunal Bose 

The stakes are too high for At risk is the rapidly growing $20-billion garment industry, by far the country's biggest foreign exchange earner, fearing some global big-ticket retailers moving their orders to places with claims to hosting safer factories and more humane labour practices. The collapse of an eight-storey building, at Savar, a commercial hub north of Dhaka, accommodating several garment factories like a pack of cards with well over 3,000 people, mostly women, is the immediate provocation. The building collapse claimed nearly 1,500 lives, making Rana Plaza, named after Awami League politician Sohel Rana, the world's worst industrial accident after our own 1984 Bhopal gas leak. This again brings into focus the cynical attitude of Bangladeshi businessmen to safety in work places. A November fire in a Dhaka garment factory killed 112 people. A couple of weeks ago, a midnight fire swept through a sweater factory in the Mirpur area of Dhaka. Fortunately, the factory was not in operation when disaster struck. But a senior police officer and some factory executives present there at that unearthly hour were all killed, exposing once more the industry's underbelly.

The accident shook the conscience of the world. Many leading newspapers in Europe and the US covered the disaster and its aftermath days together, going deep into the factors responsible for the series of accidents in garment factories in and the generally abominable working conditions in this industry. Besides the disaster, what moved the Western media to do insightful work is the massive sourcing of garments from by almost all prominent European and US retailers, from to Benetton to JC Penny to cheap British high street label Primark. The Bangladeshi is of Byzantine complexity. One or two labels found in the rubble are not supposed to be there. As foreign orders pass from one supplier to another and then to the next, the importers run the risk of losing track of where exactly their garments are stitched and in what working conditions. So, the much trumpeted idea of sourcing products "ethically" remains good on paper.

It is, however, not that the alone, with its strong political ties, is in the dock for blatant violations of building codes. The political clout of garment factory owners and of those with significant investment in the industry becomes obvious, as they account for nearly 10 per cent of Bangladesh parliament's membership. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said 90 per cent of buildings in Bangladesh have irregularities over which The Economist makes the sardonic comment, "that may be an understatement." Labour unions and NGOs are untiring in their campaigns that many factory owners remain unabashed in using their political connections for flouting factory safety norms and denial of minimum wages. Bangladesh has an awfully poor record of bringing industrial offenders to book. So, no one is putting a bet on house cleaning post the Rana Plaza tragedy. What particularly infuriated foreign buyers was Sohel Rana not decommissioning the building even after cracks appeared a day before its collapse. Instead, Rana and other factory owners arm twisted the workers to report for duty.

Any worthwhile reforms of the industry, which has grown to its present size on the back of incredibly low labour cost, will be possible it foreign buyers pressure Bangladesh government and suppliers to "vastly improve" the standards of factory safety and work environment. In the past, factory owners brazened through accidents claiming large numbers of victims using their political clout. But the Rana Plaza turning into a killing field for criminal negligence of factory owners is such a big shock that some major brands are seriously considering their future in Bangladesh. In fact, Disney has decided to pull out of the country. If more follow the example of Disney, then Bangladesh will be facing a major economic crisis and social disorder. The garment industry accounts for 80 per cent of the country's export. It also provides employment to over 4.5 million, including 3.5 million women. The easy option is to transfer garment orders to say Cambodia, where, however, the minimum wage for a garment factory worker at $80 is double that in Bangladesh. Instead Western garment importers should insist on strict audit of factory working. They must not countenance postponement of demolition of infirm factory buildings.

The levers to enforce reforms in the Bangladesh garment industry are all with the West and these should be used now. No doubt Western retailers have been drawn in hordes to Bangladesh primarily because it has remained the last outpost of cheap labour. China is the world's largest garment exporter even while factory wages range from $154 to $230. To take advantage of low wages, some Chinese garment makers have opened factories in Bangladesh. Hasina has given a call to importers to pay more for garments, creating conditions for factory wage improvement. Will not a shirt in the US retail at a rate a woman worker in Bangladesh makes in a month? Removing the blot on the industry will require of Dhaka to discipline factory owners prospering by way of circumventing all rules with impunity.

First Published: Mon, May 20 2013. 22:32 IST