The ghastly tragedy at the garment factory outside Dhaka last week, in which at least 112 workers, and possibly twice that many, died in a fire should force the Bangladeshi government to act. According to international workers’ rights activists, as many as 700 people have died in such accidents since 2000. A similar fire a century ago in New York, which killed over a hundred workers, led to new laws regarding worker safety and security. How will Bangladesh react?
Bangladesh has an unhealthy dependence on the garment industry. Many in Bangladesh believe that if local factories have to invest in improving standards, it will raise costs and major international retailers who have helped Bangladesh become the world’s second largest garment exporter after China will balk and invest elsewhere. Some retailers might leave, but Bangladesh has to choose who matters more—investor confidence or the lives of its citizens.
The garment sector has been a major boon for poor Bangladeshi women. In her seminal work, Power to Choose, sociologist Naila Kabeer has written how choices become available to women once they have jobs, making them independent and empowered.
But many Bangladeshi manufacturers don’t see such workers as assets. They treat workers callously. The manager of Tazreen Fashions, the factory burnt to ground, reportedly said he did not know he needed to have an emergency exit at his plant. Reports suggest that the one available exit was either blocked or padlocked, presumably to prevent workers from “slacking off”. Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign, asks: “How do such factories get the permit to operate or a licence to export? Managers think of people as disposable workforce that can be replaced easily.” Noting the feudal nature of relationship between the employer and employees, she points out how some factories offer jobs to the relatives of workers who die at factories, instead of compensating the families. “Think of that family, which has lost someone, now being asked to work in the same factory,” she observes.
Some critics have complained about the role of two multinational companies—Wal-Mart and Sears—which have bought garments from Tazreen in recent years. Both companies have said they did not have current, existing relationship with the factory. In fact, Wal-Mart reportedly ceased buying from the factory. But the global supply chain is so complicated that a multinational cannot monitor all suppliers and it becomes difficult ensure that a factory it has suspended doesn’t end up continuing to supply garments by picking up additional orders that other suppliers cannot cope with during the busy holiday season.
Global retailers flock to Bangladesh because of its absurdly low wages. The state has set the minimum monthly wage at 3,000 taka, or about $37, which is about the World Bank’s definition of absolute poverty and it is substantially below Bangladesh’s per capita income of $848 a year. Garment exports account for nearly four-fifths of the country’s export earnings. Bangladesh’s success in the garment sector is primarily because of its depressed wages, which are one-fifth of Chinese wages. The factories are often in dilapidated buildings with exposed electric wiring, in the middle of crowded urban areas. Trade unionists aren’t safe: Aminul Islam, who organized workers, was murdered last April.
Factory audits matter, but however comprehensive an audit, there is no guarantee it can identify each problem, nor can auditors terminate supplier relationships. The punishment for persistent defaulters—suspension—is not made in public, allowing a defaulting factory owner to bid for business from a less demanding retailer. Constantly worried that they might lose business from fickle-minded, footloose retailers, textile manufacturers don’t invest in expensive safety equipment. And global firms do move business elsewhere—to another factory or country. The firms blame non-demanding consumers who want their T-shirts to cost the same as a meal at Starbucks.
The real problem is regulatory capture. The sector has significant political clout in Bangladesh. According to activists, some 10% of parliamentarians own factories and another 20% have some control over factories. Textile magnates are politically well-connected, belong to both major political parties, and successive governments have kept the wages low. As Joseph Sternberg argues in The Wall Street Journal, the disaster is like “the deadliest bog fire in a swamp created by long-running trade protectionism abroad and retrograde industrial policy at home.”
Bangladesh believes that in garments, the nation has found a champion sector. Capital equipment the factories import remain tax-exempt, while other entrepreneurs must pay high duties for the machinery they need. Other industries haven’t developed.
The late-November tragedy was entirely predictable and preventable. There are lessons to be learnt. Bangladesh should reduce its dependence on the garment sector; regulate operations; ensure proper inspections; and prosecute and punish manufacturers—however well-connected—for treating their workers as disposable. If not, the tragedy will be repeated, like a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, like an overturned boat in the river Padma.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-