The Bangladeshi Garment Industry Debacle

Yesterday, I went shopping.

I didn’t leave the flat with the intention of shopping.  The intent was to head to a movie in the modern cineplex on the top floor of Dhaka’s massive Bashundhara City Mall. But, you know how it is when you go see a movie on the top floor of a mall… as you descend the escalators heading to your vehicle a friend suddenly spots something chic in a window and decides they need a closer look.  You wander around the shop, biding your time as your friends decides upon the ideal shoe color, when you stumble upon one thing so alluring, you’re compelled to try it on. Before you know it, you love it, and you walk out of the store, bag in hand, feeling accomplished despite the fact that purchasing a new tunic was never on your “to do” list for the day.

Such is the life of many a shopper in our merchandise rich world. Shopping can be a hobby. A habit. A lifestyle. And in our often individualistic western mindsets, we place a large emphasis on the type of shopping that most visibly allows us to  represent “who we are”: clothing.

Over the past couple of months, this coveted past-time has received a lot of controversial press- especially with regards to the origins of much of our western clothing in countries like Bangladesh.

The April 24 Rana Factory collapse in the Savar district of Dhaka killed over 1,100 workers and compelled international news agencies to formulate a slew of investigative articles, features, documentaries and interviews shedding light on the intricate workings of Bangladesh’s massive garment industry.

At a glance, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Exporters Association (GMNEA), “The ready made garment industry employs 3.5 million people, 80% of them are women and around 20 million people are depending on this sector at present for their livelihood. ” Beyond the numerous individuals dependent upon this industry, its robust nature makes it integral for the entire working of the Bangladeshi economy. In 2010, the exports brought in over 12.5 million dollars. As the largest exporter of cotton shirts in the world and second largest exporter of cotton pullovers and jeans, Bangladesh is no. 4 on the WTO‘s garment exporters list holding onto a solid 3% of the global market. Though the numbers may not seem the most impressive, they have definitely been a large contributing factory to Bangladesh’ s steady economic growth proceeding at about 6% per year.

Despite its unequivocal  status as a pillar in the Bangladeshi economy, the Rana Plaza incident is not the first disaster to strike. A June 14 article from the Associated Press in the Washington Post recognizes that, though not matched in scale, there have been other factory collapses in recent years such as the collapse of the Spectrum sweater factory back in 2005.  Recent surveys by members of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) have yielded results indicating that numerous other factories have compromised structural integrity due to poor workmanship and illegal additions. Just months ago, a fire in the Tazreen factory killed over a hundred workers.

Perhaps, such recent events should force us, as consumers, to reevaluate some of our stress-relieving or expressionist techniques. Maybe, just maybe, it could be time for us to stop shopping at name brand stores like GAP and H&M. Is it time for us to reevaluate our mode de la vie?

For many companies, the answer has been yes.

These tragedies have nudged  transnational companies (TNCs), including Disney, to move their manufacturing to another country as they reassessed the implications of such disasters for their products, their images, and (I venture optimistically to say) their social impact.

While some TNCs are departing entirely,  others have signed a safety agreement mandating a higher level of factory safety requirements. This agreement includes provisions to:

  • conduct independent safety inspections with public reports
  • mandate factory building renovations
  • obligate brands and retailers to underwrite the cost of repairs
  • improve role for workers and their unions [unclear how]
  • call for participating companies to pay up to $500,000 a year toward building maintenance and safety in Bangladeshi factories, to bring them up to a specified standard (ten cents per garment)

Among these TNCs are popular brands like H&M, Benetton, Target and Primark.

Still other brands, including many U.S. brands, are hesitant to sign onto this agreement. Brands like GAP and Walmart have refused to sign and instead have created their own agreements dictating their own parameters of company accountability and audits.

Even considering the array of label responses to the most recent industrial disaster, there is still much to be done to improve the working conditions of such factories. Companies can only do so much without government support and reforms.  According to a recent  Reuters article about Tesco decision to quit using a factory after finding serious structural concerns , “Bangladesh has pledged to improve safety in the garment industry after the Rana Plaza collapse but has not pledged any new money to relocate dangerous buildings.” In fact, news of the past couple of days shows that their have been no national budget reallocation in the wake of recent events.

In response to such inaction, some nations are considering political steps to encourage Bangladesh to address poor working conditions. For example, after six years of postponing action (in the hopes that Bangladesh would engage in reforms) the Obama Administration is considering cutting off trade benefits for Bangladesh. Though  largely symbolic with limited impact on the Bangladeshi economy or export patterns, this would be a very apparent “slap on the wrist” to the Bangladesh.

Midst all this reporting on the reprehensible factory conditions and the ongoing international debates as to appropriate political responses to  recent disasters, what are we -the meandering window-shoppers and shopaholics alike- supposed to do?

The simple answer is to make sure we are not oblivious. In today’s media rich age, gone are the days when we could feign ignorance as to the origins of our purchases. Instead, everything comes down to conscious decision-making.

That’s not to say that the answer is a simple yes or no. For one thing, individuals have to make choices considering their own unique perspectives and situations, and I strongly believe that no one person can be the ethical voice of the masses. On a second note, I’m  convinced that company instigated factory reforms or altering our brand patronage to support only companies who spend money on their factories or work outside Bangladesh is insufficient. Who’s to say that this wont just result in lower wages for workers? Or equally as poor conditions in less media blazed countries? And might more restrictive labor legislation, if not articulated well and created with the interests of all stakeholders in mind, lead to a mass exodus of companies from Bangladesh and have largely negative repercussions on Bangladeshis? Could higher wages, and higher work standards, lead to a smaller workforce? Though company-centric reforms may be successful at ensuring higher working standards for some, isn’t there room it could diminish quality of life for larger segments of the population dependent on this gargantuan industry?

Buried somewhere deep in this murky, grey debacle is at least one thing that is clearly black and white: whatever reforms are going to be made next, and on whatever scale, someone has to intervene to ensure that the focus remains on improving lives of the people who matter most in the garment industry: the workers.

Whether that role is the role of the consumer, is up to you.


Originally published June 20, 2013

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