Picture from Guardian.co.uk
On April 24, 2013 the Bangladeshi garment industry witnessed the worst disaster in its history. More than 1,000 workers died when Rana Plaza, a factory building in the little suburb of Savar, collapsed. It was the most horrific out of many similar incidents – but certainly not the first.
Following a considerable amount of media attention to the disaster (for more, read here from The Huffington Post, here from the BBC, and here from Al Jazeera), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Senator Robert Menendez, held a hearing on June 6, 2013 to discuss the lack of basic rights and protection of workers in Bangladesh. (Read his Op-Ed, “A Cry for Worker Fairness” here.) Several government officials and representatives from both labor and the industry testified including Lewis Karesh, Asst. U.S. Trade Representative for Labor; Robert Blake, Asst. Sec. of State for South and Central Asian Affairs; Eric Biel, Acting Associate Deputy of the Secretary for International Affairs at Bureau for International Labor Affairs; Celeste Drake, Trade Policy Specialist at AFL-CIO; and Johan Lubbe, International Labor & Employment Partner at Littler Mendelson, PC.
Given the rampant corruption in Bangladesh, many factory managers are allowed to build substandard factories for their workers. The garment industry has close ties with the government and is thus allowed to operate with impunity. Most workers are restricted from joining or even forming unions- as Mr. Karesh highlighted as one of the causes of the collapse. Workers were coerced to work in a factory that had been known to have structural risks. Many had even complained about a crack in the building the day before but were still required to show up for work the next day. Many never made it out.
Beginning to tackle the workers’ rights situation in Bangladesh will have positive global implications. Bangladesh is the second largest garment manufacturer in the world behind China. According to Sen. Menendez, if structural reforms are implemented in Bangladesh, other manufacturing countries will follow suit. Under Secretary Sherman also opined that many less developed countries see Bangladesh as “a powerful model for democratic and economic development and seek to replicate its success.”
However, if such reforms are to see the light of day, everybody ranging from the government of Bangladesh to the clothing apparel corporations in Europe and the U.S. must take responsibility. Bangladesh produces clothing goods for global brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Sean John, Target, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Walmart. However, many of these companies, especially those based in the U.S, have, as of the date of this writing, failed to sign a five-year binding contract that would require them to help pay for fire safety and building improvements in Bangladesh. The ideology of conscious consumerism is growing fast and as Sen. Menendez articulated at the beginning of the session, “No one will want to wear a piece of clothing made in Bangladesh if it’s on the blood of workers.”
How can YOU make an impact? As a consumer, you have the power to demand these structural changes, both by choosing what designer clothes to wear and what not to and by making your views known through advocacy campaigns.
As with all horrific disasters, many choose to focus on the cause of the disaster as opposed to how to stop it from happening again. While many regulations have been put in place in line with the GSP, the Bangladeshi government has failed to enforce those laws. Sohel Rana, for example, the owner of the factory building, operated like a mafia lord with close ties to the government. He has been arrested since the collapse for ignoring several complaints. For the Bangladeshi government to show that it is serious about implementing these changes for Bangladeshi workers, there has to be both a short term and a long term plan. Simply closing 20 unsafe factories after a disaster is not enough; to the contrary, a tragedy of this scale should motivate the government to implement substantial changes.
Further, workers’ voices must be heard, most likely by being given an avenue to collectively associate and demand for safer working conditions and livable wages. Most of the workers in the factories are women and earn less than $40 a month.
Last year, a labor leader, Aminul Islam was tortured and killed. Key leads in the case have been dropped. The investigation seems to be going nowhere. Many believe he was killed for trying to organize factory workers. His is just one of the many deaths that someone has to answer for.
The world is now watching Bangladesh. Consumers are watching Bangladesh.
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