Bangladesh’s massive building collapse has horrified Western nations that buy its garments, but industry players expect incremental progress at best in encouraging better factory conditions.
Initiatives by governments, corporations and unions to impose more stringent safety rules in Bangladesh have made little headway for years, although activists are hoping the April 24 tragedy could bring momentum. At least 740 people died when the nine-story Rana Plaza, where workers sewed clothes for Western brands such as Mango and Benetton, crumbled to the ground. Just five months earlier, 111 workers died in a separate factory fire.
Robert Ross, a professor of sociology at Clark University, said that the disasters showed the failure of the system in which corporations take the lead in ensuring safety in the developing world.
“I don’t want to say that they’re entirely hypocritical. I assume that there are leadership cadres among the managers who want to feel that they’re doing the right thing. But, finally, it’s not working,” said Ross, the author of a 2004 book on sweatshops, “Slaves to Fashion.”
Governments have become increasingly involved. After prodding by unions and lawmakers, the United States in January started a review on whether to suspend Bangladesh from the Generalized System of Preferences, which gives thousands of goods — although not clothing — duty-free access.
The US, which buys a quarter of Bangladesh’s garments, has also offered to support Bangladesh in entering a program on factory standards. The initiative, first launched in Cambodia, is led by the International Labour Organization.
But as a condition to enter the so-called Better Work program, politically polarized Bangladesh’s parliament must pass a law to break down the country’s forbidding barriers to organized Labour in the $20 billion garment sector.
“We’re very willing to work with them, we’re willing to put money and expertise into this, but only if the political will is there,” a US government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Even if Bangladesh enters the program, it would only cover 10 percent of the nearly 5,000 garment factories, and it would take time to train inspectors and end a culture of non-compliance on safety, the official said.
On a visit last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed Bangladesh over the April 2012 murder of a top trade unionist, Aminul Islam. No one has been prosecuted, although another US official said this week that there were positive signs with Bangladesh seeking a suspect.
Despite the disasters, Bangladesh has proved lucrative for foreign companies due to its low costs. Its garment exports, which started in 1978, are now second only to those of increasingly expensive China.
The European Union buys 60 percent of Bangladesh’s garments. Last week in Germany, retailers including Gap and Walmart took part in talks led by the government-run Society for International Development (GIZ) on a joint effort.
Past efforts have had limited results.
After a 2010 fire in Dhaka killed 29 workers — some jumping to their deaths as exits were locked — companies and unions negotiated a binding agreement that includes independent inspections of factories and a role for workers in identifying risks.
-With AFP/The Independent input