By Danielle May, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
Following the tragic collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the pope has condemned the working conditions of the factory as ‘slave labor’, a stance supported by many. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building resulted in the deaths of over 650 people, with bodies still being recovered. A further 2,500 people were injured, with many still unaccounted for. The incident has resulted in angry and widespread protests erupting around the city. Nine arrests of those considered responsible have so far been made and some protestors have been calling for the death penalty to be implemented, holding signs with slogans such as ‘hang the killers, hang the factory owners’. While this incident was the worst in Bangladeshi history, it is certainly not the only one of its kind. Only in November 2012, a factory making supplies for the major US chain Walmart suffered a fire that killed over 100 workers.
In a desperate attempt to keep up with the West’s constant high demand for bargain clothing, many garment factories in Bangladesh have been neglecting the standards of their factories and the wellbeing of their workers. Reports coming out of Dhaka reveal that workers at the Rana Plaza building were being paid only 38 euros per month, an extremely low wage. Bangladesh is the third largest garment exporter in the world, following China and Vietnam, and its workers are some of the most exploited. Although ‘no child labor’ signs are found hanging on the walls in many garment factories, with the huge amount of workers and the often less than adequate recording systems, it is difficult to tell whether this rule is actually being enforced.
Disastrous episodes such as fires, collapses and stampedes have shed light on the conditions of workers in Bangladeshi garment factories and led to questions on how the situation can be improved. In most of these cases, many deaths could have been avoided as some workers couldn’t escape the buildings due to locked exits. No action has ever been taken to persecute factories or landlords in extreme violation of safety regulations and building codes. Some speculate that the reason the Bangladeshi garment industry is so protected is because of the huge number of jobs it creates for locals, especially for impoverished young women, who would otherwise have no means of survival. The high demand for these jobs has therefore led to ‘cowboy operators’ who take shortcuts to make a profit. Those involved in the Rana Plaza collapse for example, were apparently warned of cracks in the building and advised to evacuate staff, warnings they ignored.
Many major Western retailers depend on Bangladeshi garments to be able to continue to provide cheap clothes to customers. As a result of incidents such as the November fire at the Tazreen factory, major buyers such as Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s have been making routine inspections at these factories to make sure the working conditions are suitable. However, there is a whole underground world of Bangladeshi garment factories that pass unchecked and unregulated, leading to sub-standard building maintenance and the abuse of the human rights of many workers.
This latest disaster will hopefully spark some action in regulating the working conditions in Bangladesh. Among those encouraging reform is the European Union, which has said it is considering taking trade action against Bangladesh to ensure fair labor conditions are met in the area. Not only is action from the Bangladesh government vital, Western companies must ensure that the factories they buy their supplies from are upholding safety standards and make sure that the prices they are charging for their clothes make it feasible for Bangladeshi factories to stick to these protocols. As the trials of those responsible for the tragedy continue, it remains to be seen whether this will spur other factory owners in Bangladesh to follow safety rules and regulations to improve the quality of life of their many disadvantaged workers.