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United Efforts, Not Boycotts, Will Help Bangladesh’s Garment Workers

May 15, 2013

The horrific collapse three weeks ago of an eight-story garment factory building in Savar, just outside of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, took the lives of more than 1,100 people, and was followed just last week by a deadly fire in another garment factory that left at least eight dead.

Bangladeshi Garment worker

The garment sector in Bangladesh accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s exports and employs more than 3 million people. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

The tragedies have left a nation in mourning, shining a spotlight on the lack of safety for garment sector workers in Bangladesh. These incidents have drawn international attention on the urgent need for better working conditions for workers, starting with safer, more secure buildings.

While these events may serve as an immediate eye opener for consumers and manufacturers in the west, the critical need to improve factory safety in the readymade garment sector in Bangladesh should not come as a surprise. The country has long been under scrutiny because of recurrent industrial accidents that point to poor working conditions and poor safety standards in some of the country’s factories. Voices from within (including international buyers and local factory owners) and outside of the industry (international donors and civil society) have repeatedly called for measures to be taken to improve factory safety.

The death toll of what is one of the largest industrial accidents in Bangladesh fully justifies national and international outcries and the ire of the customers and business community, demanding that strong commitments and measures are taken. However, the worst thing that could happen to the readymade sector in Bangladesh, and to the millions of workers whose livelihoods depend on exports to western countries, is to see the label “made in Bangladesh” boycotted by consumers.

After China, Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel exporter. The garment sector accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s exports and employs more than 3 million people, mostly women. If it is true that cheap labor is the main driver of the sector’s growth, it is also fair to say that this growth has provided economic opportunities to millions of women who would have very few other options to escape extreme poverty. The garment sector, despite what seems like an extremely-low paying industry in western standards, has positively transformed the lives of many women in Bangladesh.

Maintaining the livelihood of the workers and their families should, however, never be to the detriment of their safety. Strong commitments need to be made and measures implemented not only to improve safety, but to make safety and decent working conditions the heart of the industry’s competitive advantage. This is not only the responsibility of the employers; it is the responsibility of each of the players in the value-chain: consumers, international buyers, leaders of the garment sector and professional associations, Bangladesh’s government, the international community, the civil society, and the workers themselves.

Consumers have an essential role to play in requesting information on the conditions in which their clothes are produced and in putting pressure on brands to better control the working conditions in the factories they are sourcing from. Western retailers are, of course, well positioned to press for reform, and to impose good working conditions as a prerequisite for their orders, before considering the price. Many world-famous brands have already called for more stringent labour safety standards. On May 8, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative convened a conference call with U.S. buyers in Bangladesh’s garment industry to discuss U.S. government engagement to improve workers’ rights and working conditions, and to review how the private sector can assist in these vital ongoing efforts.

The question now is whether these “good words” will translate into effective action with real and sustainable results.

The different parties have already put forward some suggestions and resolutions, including the need for independent safety and fire inspectors, the requirement that factories are certified by a group of engineers, and the establishment of a “Corrective Action Plan” (CAP) which the manufacturer will have to fulfill, among others. Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus also suggested in an op-ed in the Dhaka Tribune on May 9, the establishment of a Garment Workers Welfare Trust and of a “good compliance label” that consumers could reference as a guarantee for labor compliance. On Monday, Bangladesh’s cabinet approved changes to the nation’s labor laws that are expected to increase the benefits for garment workers and make it easier to form trade unions.

Another recommendation is to draw from the experience of Better Factories Cambodia, a program managed by the International Labour Organization, in close collaboration with the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) and the country’s trade unions. The program aims to improve working conditions in Cambodia’s export garment factories and combines independent monitoring with finding solutions, through suggestions to management, training, advice, and information. In Bangladesh, the implementation of such a program would require four key elements:

  • that international buyers join forces with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) to advocate for the immediate passage of labour law amendments to lay the basis for the establishment of such a program;
  • that Bangladesh’s government shows a strong political will to enforce the labour laws and a strong commitment to international labour compliance;
  • that workers are more organized (which implies greater freedom of association), better informed and included in the design and implementation of the program, and;
  • that the BGMEA, the government, civil society, and labour groups coordinate efforts with each other and with the international community.

Only a large mobilization of all parties can help ensure that tragedies of this kind don’t happen again. All parties need to send a clear message to factory owners that decent working conditions is a prerequisite for sourcing products from Bangladesh, or from any other country in the world. In the near future, consumers need to buy “made in Bangladesh” clothes, not “despite” the bad working conditions of some of its factories, but “because” of a clear commitment of its whole industry to meet international standards.

Sadly, it is too late for the hundreds of workers who perished in the tragedy of Savar, but what better testimony to their memory than to learn from this tragedy and use it to drive safety standards and changes in attitude that will lead to a safer, more just garment industry.

Véronique Salze-Lozac’h is The Asia Foundation’s director for Economic Development Programs based in Bangkok. She can be reached at veronique.salze-lozach@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

2 comments on this post:

  1. An excellent, very perceptive analysis! I would suggest one additional recommendation — the United States might want to offer Bangladesh a powerful economic incentive to work with the International Labor Organization to supervise conditions in the factories. The deal would be simple: The Bangladesh government would open its garment factories to such credible international ILO oversight, and clean up the “sweatshops.” In return, the United States would offer Bangladesh duty-free access to U.S. clothing markets (which are presently “protected” by high tariffs averaging in the 12-18 percent range). The best model for this is Cambodia, which has opened its clothing factories to ILO supervison; the program may not be perfect, but it has worked very well. Alas, the United States has not recriprocated by offering the Cambodians duty-free access to protected U.S. clothing markets.

    —Greg Rushford (editor, the Rushford Report, http://www.rushfordreport.com).

  2. David Van:

    Reality of the trade is Int’l Buyers are all hypocritical and would always go for “Cheap Cheap” sources of supply despite putting up (with lips service) issues of “ethical manufacturing and corporate social responsibility”…

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