Pressure Piled on the Garment Industry to Make a Change

Satnam Shergill

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Photo Source: Derek Blackadder via Wikimedia Commons.

Bangladeshi factory workers seldom seem to be out of the news; they have endured scandal after scandal. Most notably the Tazreen factory fire in which over 100 people were killed, the Rana Plaza factory collapse in which 1,210 people died and most recently where hundreds of workers were rushed to hospital after complaints of stomach pains and vomiting due to drinking unsanitary water from the factory supply line.

The Rana Plaza and Tazreen tragedies have meant that fears of insignificant worker safety have resurfaced, and as a result groups such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and Ethical Trading Initiative have been piling pressure on both manufacturers and the consumer to be more aware of the supply chain from which they buy. With this should come a call on larger clothing corporations to accept the blame for the continuing tragedies, and welcome the social responsibility to have a fair and ethical supply chain: from the factory to their storefronts.

For an industry on which Bangladesh and the city of Dhaka are so dependent, providing 4 million jobs, empowering the vulnerable and helping reduce the large inequalities in the country, you would like think that the government, factory owners and managers alike would oversee the state of the factories more stringently, rather than allowing poor infrastructure, cramped work spaces and weak foundations to exist. However this doesn’t seem to be the case; inward and external layers of pressure  create a working environment far from the ideals of Western societies.

The burden on Bangladesh arguably stems from the insatiable appetite of high-income economies for instant services, cheap products and ever-growing profits, the main sources of pressure for factory workers and owners. Another endogenous pressure is provided by the vast competition for garment production around the world, including from China, Philippines and Turkey. If more regulation is put in place to ensure safer workplaces, Bangladeshi factory costs will rise, deterring clothing brands who wont think twice about shifting production elsewhere.

There are also pressures from within the country, where there is almost a dependency on the garment and textile industries that foreign economies offer, and they are aware that without the export revenues the economy will no longer be as prosperous. This creates a situation whereby officials, managers and even workers are willing to turn a blind eye to fragilities within the supply chain in order to meet the next deadline.

Cumulatively, all of these pressures can be blamed for the collapse of the Rana Plaza. An investigation after the fall of the factory found that a day previous the factory was closed and deemed unfit to be worked in due to frailties in the building; despite the warnings and closure the factory was reopened in order to meet production deadlines, and we are well aware of what happened after.

There must be a response to the failings in the supply chains of clothing companies, not just in Bangladesh, but globally. Levelling the playing field by implementing universal safety regulations would eliminate the competitive edge of those countries who don’t currently abide by them. This would create greater transparency for customers and allow them to make rational and ethical decisions on where they buy their clothes. With this, clothing companies and manufacturers will become more accountable for poor standards and implementation; the risk of them losing profits from a bad public image are far greater than losing profits from slightly higher costs borne from better working conditions.

In the wake of these issues, there has finally been a response from the clothing producers and brands from around the world. After the disaster it was found that British based firms such as Primark, BonMarche and Matalan were getting their clothes produced at the factory.

The response, although slow, can be perceived as a significant one; more than 50 clothing and textile companies, including H&M, Primark and Helly Hansen, Next along with many others, have agreed to sign up to a building safety agreement. The agreement is supported by various organisations, most notably the InustriALL global trade Union, the Bangladeshi government and other NGOs.

However, a recent Newsnight investigation found that Gap, WalMart and Arcadia Group are still yet to sign up, stating that they are pursuing their own measures to ensure a cleaner supply chain.

IndustriALL general sectary, Jyrki Raina, recently praised those companies who signed up stating that “We recognize the commitment that these companies are making towards ending the cycle of factory disasters in Bangladesh” and that they hope that  “ every garment worker in Bangladesh can work in safety”

The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety is the biggest response from the global community yet; the agreement outlines its aims by stating that all signatories are “committed to the goal of a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi ReadyMade Garment (“RMG”) industry”. This will be achieved through tougher governance, regular fire and safety inspection, remediation and training for factory managers.

For Bangladesh to remain the world’s second largest exporter of textiles and garments, they must remedy their literal and physical vulnerabilities; large companies will not stand to be associated with such highly exposed and large scale tragedies, and will soon jump ship.

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