It took 1,127 deaths in Bangladesh to find retailers' hearts

Sometimes it takes a tragedy of enormous proportions, such as the building collapse in Bangladesh last month, to bestir the conscience of multinational corporates and brand-labels that profit from low-wage sweatshop culture.

But sometimes, even such a tragedy isn't quite enough.

In response to the building collapse that, when rescue workers called off their operations on Monday, had claimed 1,127 lives, international brand-labels - from the Swedish retailer H&M (the largest apparel buyer in Bangladesh) to Zara (considered the third-largest buyer) to Tesco and Primark - signed on to a plan to improve working conditions in the sweatshops that pass for garment factories in the country. The proposed measures include plans for building safety and fire safety, for which the retailers will contribute funds.

 It took 1,127 deaths in Bangladesh to find retailers hearts


The five-year Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh envisages independent safety inspections and commits companies to publicly report the findings. Companies that sign on for the plan must not do business with factories that refuse to make the necessary safety upgrades.

The agreement was formalised at the initiative of global and Bangladeshi labour unions and was backed by NGOs campaigning for workers' rights, including the Worker Rights Consortium, based in Washington, and IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, which represent workers in 140 countries.

Bangladesh is the world's second biggest garment exporter, behind China, an industry primarily driven by low wages and the absence of regulation that are a magnet for Western apparel brands. Workers were not allowed to form unions for fear of dismissal, although in the past two days, the government has moved to raise the minimum wage and ease union rules.

Evidently, authorities were aware of serious cracks in Rana Plaza a day before it collapsed on 24 April. But employees had been forced to work for fear of seeing their wages cut.

An estimated 5 million Bangladeshi workers, more than 75 percent of them women, are employed in the 5,000 garment factories. They earn about $38 a month, among the lowest in the world.

By some estimates, it will cost about $3 billion to renovate some 5,000 countries in Bangladesh over the next five years. Companies will contribute by paying up to $500,000 a year each for the program, and additionally contribute to the costs of building repairs.

But even in the aftermath of such a colossal tragedy, unity of purpose in ensuring workers' safety has proved difficult to achieve.

Workers union sources noted that Wal-Mart, the second largest apparel buyer in Bangladesh, and Gap, another leading sourcer, were yet to endorse the accord, and were instead emphasising their own voluntary programs that were not "legally enforceable".

Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner told MarketWatch that the retailer's goal is "to positively impact global supply chain practices both by raising (its) own standards and by partnering with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry."

Although the US company was not impacted by the building collapse, an earlier fire in November, which claimed 100 lives, was believed to be manufacturing garments for Wal-Mart without permission.

Institutional investors that have holdings in Wal-Mart are pressuring the retailor to abide by better social auditing standards. Bloomberg reported that the head of an institutional investor had noted that Wal-Mart's auditing standards "failed miserably in Bangladesh" and that "no one wants to profit... for putting workers at some crazy risk."

Alongside the initiative to get retailers to commit to contributing to workers' safety, the Bangladesh government has also pledged to raise wages for garment workers and changed labour laws to make it easier for them to form trade unions.

But when workers struck work demanding higher pay, the association that represents garment manufacturers, who aren't happy with the government move to raise minimum wages, shut down all factories in one of the major hubs of the garment industry.

In explaining its decision to shut down the factories and lock out workers, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) cited a two-week-long worker discontent in Ashulia, reported Huffington Post.

"For at least the last 14 days, workers have turned up only to give their attendance and not work," BGMEA vice president Mohammad Shahidullah Azim said.

"No work, no pay," Azim added

Simultaneously, a proposal floated by Nobel laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus for a 50-cent surcharge on each piece of garment sourced from Bangladesh, to be paid by garment buyers, has drawn criticism on the grounds that it feeds the "business of begging".

Under Yunus' proposal, that additional 50 cents could be used to "resolve most of the problems faced by the workers -- their physical safety, social safety, individual safety, work environment, pensions, healthcare, housing, their children's health, education, childcare, retirement, old age, travel could all be taken care of through this Trust."

But one indignant commentator noted: "Why would you set the minimum wage at 50 cents per hour in Bangladesh and then ask overseas retailers to get a customer dole out a further 50 cent for a clothing to have the label on it that says 'From the happy workers of Bangladesh, with pleasure'?..."

But as the reluctance of Wal-Mart and Gap to sign on for a binding deal, and the response of the garment makers' association shows, not everyone is comfortable with a rights-based approach to dealing with worker safety issue.

Perhaps beneath all the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza, you'll find buried the pitiless hearts of garment retailers who profit unjustly from unsafe working conditions in benighted Bangladesh...

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 20:33:41 IST