The Rana Plaza garment catastrophe one year on: who needs labour rights and safety?

Workers rights, workplace safety and consequently the survival of Bangladesh's garments industry, require domestic legislative and judicial measures to address the causes and effects of catastrophes; they will also need pressure from industry-leading companies in the west. 

Nazmus Sakib
14 March 2014

Diplomats from the largest buyer countries of Bangladesh’s ready-made garments have urged Bangladesh to fulfill its pledges on workers’ rights and workplace safety by March, ahead of the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy on April 24. 

Army personnel and civilian volunteers work on the scene after an eight-storey building collapsed in outskirts of Dhakar

Workers say they were "forced" into Rana Plaza/Demotix/Firoz Ahmed/All rights reserved

It is expected that on the first anniversary of this tragedy, many foreign journalists will come to Bangladesh to monitor the progress the government has made in fulfilling its commitments a year after the catastrophe that killed more than 1,100 garment workers. This ultimatum came after a US Senate Committee hearing on Bangladesh's labour rights and democratic crisis. In order to restore Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) facilities Bangladesh is required to fulfil these commitments within the prescribed deadline.

Despite much global and local outcry and promise, Bangladesh has experienced a series of human catastrophes within its prize garments industry. These have occurred one after another over a number of decades yet there have been no visible signs of redress for the individuals who continue to suffer as a consequence and no precautionary measures at large have been taken in respect of life-endangering factories. There are two sides involved in this story of burden. One, of course, is the government and law enforcers of the land; but can the giant brands and glamorous global fashion and passion industry deny the fact that these labourers, innocent sweatshop workers, laid down their lives just to allow the production and perpetuation of ostentatious fabrics and fads at a cheaper price?

The Bangladeshi garment industry continues to face intense scrutiny. International media has associated major western brands like Gap with images of "death trap" sweatshops and drawn greater attention to labour activists. International labour and rights advocacy groups are leveraging this awareness to ensure better factory safety standards. But it is unclear why this has not motivated the larger companies and industry leaders within western capitals to create a “credible threat” for factory owners in Bangladesh. In game theory terms there is literally no other way to convince or motivate such factory owners to improve the working conditions of their labourers.

In labour economics, efficiency wage theory states that if labourers are better paid they will be in a better position to take care of themselves and thus improve their productivity. In Bangladesh, the evidence shows that garment workers can hardly pay rent or put sufficient amounts of nutritious food on the table for their families; years of trends show that wages haven't kept up with inflation, which is one reason the low clothing prices are so attractive to US and European companies. Considering the income differential at the other end of the supply chain, should a long-overdue rise for the world's poorest workers be a negotiation tool?  

Relatives of the Savar tragedy victims hold the photos of their dear ones who still remain missing for the fifth day

Relatives of the victims hold photos of their dear ones who still remain missing/Demotix/Rehman Asad/All rights reserved

The demand for sustainable wages both from the streets of Dhaka and from the media outlets of global capitals complements the necessity for a safer workplace. However, higher pay alone cannot improve the misery of Bangladeshi sweatshop workers. Another matter of serious concern is the effective absence of garment workers’ unions. It is indeed true that Bangladesh’s labour union experience with nationalized firms is a nightmare because of the criminal inefficiency and production loss they have afflicted in the name of bargaining. At the same time, the workers need a genuine, efficient and nonpartisan voice to speak on their behalf and represent their concerns. The government and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) should create an auspicious environment for bona fide trade unions.

Detectives taking Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana plaza out of a court room

Rana Plaza owner in the process of being remanded for 15 days, April 2013/Demotix/Rehman Asad/All rights reserved

Bangladesh must take a clear stance regarding garments catastrophes not only to protect one of its most impoverished classes of citizens but also to keep the money coming from its crown industry. It does not take an economist to understand that the current model of “slave labour” – as once expressed by Pope Francis – cannot be sustained indefinitely. The theory of comparative advantage will soon engender the transfer of orders to safer countries if the cost of life becomes “dearer” to those placing them. Recent global coverage and activism regarding Bangladesh garments, especially following the Rana Plaza incident, signals that this trend is catching on. To meet its future challenges Bangladesh must ensure the speedy and independent trial of the culprits involved in such homicides. What is more, words must be acted upon to ensure that all whose lives have been devastated by the loss of so many innocents in this plight, are justly compensated.


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