Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review: An Emblematic Tragedy in Bangladesh

From our 13 June LDESP Asia-Pacific News Update.

In late April 2013, events in Bangladesh captured global attention when a gargantuan garment factory complex outside the capital of Dhaka collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers and injuring thousands more. What was described as the one of the world’s worst industrial accidents brought different issues within the country’s society and governance to the fore as reports came out that as the world’s second biggest supplier of clothes, Bangladeshi workers are at risk of similar incidents. According to a survey by Bangladeshi engineers reported on by The Guardian, three-fifths of garment factories in the country are vulnerable to collapse:

Source: Lonely Planet

Source: Lonely Planet

“The survey’s revelation that the lives of millions of Bangladeshi workers, often making goods for western firms, are at risk will concern western retailers which, following global outrage after the Rana Plaza collapse, are now moving to improve security and conditions in the Bangladesh factories that supply their shops. Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest supplier of clothes. More than 80% are exported to Europe or the US. The £13bn industry employs about 3.5 million people, mainly young women, and is a major foreign currency earner for Bangladesh.

The survey is the work of a team of engineers from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). They have so far surveyed a sixth of 600 buildings that house more than 3,000 clothes factories.

“Somewhere around 60% of the buildings are vulnerable,” said Prof Mehedi Ansary, who leads the team. “This doesn’t mean they will collapse in the next week or month, but it does mean that to leave them unchanged would be irresponsible.”

Managers ignored warning signs such as cracks, which appeared in the days before the Rana Plaza collapse on 24 April in the Dhaka suburb of Savar. Workers said they were told there was no cause for worry and they should get back to work.

(…) Its owner, Sohel Rana, has been charged over the collapse. Investigations have suggested that he abused his influence as a local boss of the ruling Awami League party to divert the authorities’ attention.

(…) Two different agreements among western firms such as Primark, Walmart, Carrefour, H&M, Gap, Tesco and other are household names are being negotiated to improve working conditions. These would theoretically commit retailers to taking measures that would prevent another tragedy, as well as providing funds for improvements.

(…) “It is a very hard time. We have to learn the lessons from Rana Plaza and Tasreen [a factory which burned down killing 114 last year],” said Atiqul Islam, president of the association.

Islam said 75% of BGMEA member had now submitted plans for their factories for inspection, but making all existing workshops safe was a “massive job”.

Fire safety also remains a major problem. There have been a series of lethal fires in factories in Dhaka in recent years.

In late May, the Guardian visited a five-storey factory where more than 400 workers in tightly packed lines stitched and packed fleece winter jackets for sale in Europe. A single narrow stairwell was obstructed by piled cardboard boxes, windows were barred and an external fire exit had been removed. On the first floor an industrial boiler was separated from piles of card and clothes by a thin partition wall.” (The Guardian)

Joseph Allchin, a journalist based in Dhaka, contextualized the developments in Bangladesh within the country’s corruption, weak governance, and poverty in Foreign Policy Magazine, “Death Mill: How the ready-made garment industry captured the Bangladeshi state”:

“The stench of Bangladesh’s worst-ever industrial disaster lingers with you long after departing what is left of the Rana Plaza factory complex, which collapsed on April 24. Now, with the death toll reaching more than 900 and additional corpses still being pulled from the rubble day and night, Bangladeshis are reeling from a fresh industrial tragedy. Just after midnight on 8 May, a fire broke out in a Dhaka clothing factory, trapping eight people who died of asphyxiation.

Both tragedies — which follow on the heels of a similar factory fire last November that left more than 100 people dead — weigh heavily on the country’s conscience. They also extend deep into its economy and politics, both of which are tightly intertwined with Western commercial interests. Ready-made garments are Bangladesh’s largest export industry, accounting for more than 75 percent of exports and raking in some $19 billion annually. And with 3.6 million Bangladeshis — mainly women with little education or training — working in approximately 4,000 textile and garment factories throughout the country, the industry has rapidly injected wages, albeit small ones, into the previously underemployed and underempowered rural class.

“Last Embrace”: Heartbreaking Bangladesh Factory Photo Couple in Final Embrace, Huffington Post Source: Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter

“Last Embrace”: “Heartbreaking Bangladesh Factory Photo Couple in Final Embrace,” Huffington Post
Source: Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter

But in a country rife with corruption, where regulations are regularly flouted, this progress comes at a price — as the tragedy in Rana Plaza makes brutally clear. And even though it seems like the next horrible tragedy is inevitable — or perhaps, literally, around the corner — it’s worth recalling the day of the collapse. In fact, it illuminates much of what is broken about Bangladesh today.

On April 23, the day before it collapsed, cracks appeared on a pillar in the rear of one of the five factories in the complex, located in an industrial satellite town on the outskirts of Dhaka. The factories were shuttered by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association for the afternoon. By the next morning, however, factory bosses demanded that workers return to their sewing machines. The shops and a bank that were housed in the front of the complex remained closed for fear that the building was structurally unsound.

(…) As the frantic rescue effort unfolded outside, Sohel Rana, the 30-year-old owner of the complex, remained trapped in his office in the building’s basement. The story of how he got out is in many ways the story of how the country got into this mess.

An exemplar of the so-called “Bangladeshi dream,” Rana owned a slew of buildings on land that many allege he had stolen. A member of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League — which effectively functioned as muscle for the parent organization — he had political connections that allowed him to avoid taxes, to acquire land through shady deals, and, fatefully, to ignore building inspectors. Rana’s principle source of power, though, was apparently his connection to Murad Jang, the local member of Parliament, for whom he mobilized funds and people.

(…) Inside what remained of the building were labels reading “Joe Fresh for JC Penney” laying near a decomposing corpse, crushed along with sewing machines. As with many of the brands seen scattered in the rubble, Canada’s Joe Fresh is struggling financially. The company recently signed a deal with JC Penney in an attempt to stimulate business; sourcing in Bangladesh, where wages are among the lowest on the planet, was another way to boost profit margins.

Workers had little choice but to go to work in Rana Plaza on the morning of April 24, according to Iqbal. Without work they would have gone hungry. Labor organizing is strongly discouraged in Bangladesh and the subject of much international criticism. The U.S. trade representative, for example, recently submitted a set of queries to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Commerce regarding labor standards. There is also a chance the country could lose its preferential access to the U.S. market.” (Foreign Policy)

Following the incident, consumer-driven pressure led to immediate efforts for reform. Ben Heineman Jr. explains in The Atlantic the implications of reform, “The Cost of Saving Lives in Bangladesh”:

“The horrific death of more than 900 Bangladesh garment workers in the collapse of a building, following the death of 112 garment workers in a Bangladesh factory fire five months ago, has led, of course, to the inevitable calls for reform. The immediate question is how to ensure structural soundness of factories after the multi-storied Rana Plaza facility–making garments for as many as 30 international retailers–broke apart, burning, suffocating and crushing its workforce. But broader issues of worker health and safety for Bangladesh’s 5,000 garment factories have also come to the fore.

But if real reform is to occur on the ground, hard, complex questions must be asked and answered. Most importantly, what is the cost of necessary changes to protect workers and who will pay? Many actors have a role: the Bangladesh government, the factory owners, the garment buyers (including many international brands), consumers across the globe looking for cheap prices and developed world governments which have allowed preferential treatment for Bangladesh imports (using “trade” in lieu of “aid”) without serious review of worker standards.

Unless these fundamental relationships and responsibilities are clarified (perhaps by a multi-stakeholder task force), meaningful change is unlikely to occur given the complex interrelationships that allowed the tragedy to occur in the first place. At the core of the problem are global garment retailers who want the incur the lowest cost–and offer the lowest price–to compete in developed markets but who do not want to be complicit in publicized worker tragedies in developing markets. Similarly, governments in developing countries want to attract garment manufacturers (who sell at lowest cost to international retailers), want to pay lip-service to worker protection, but do not want to send those manufacturers to another low cost country because of costly health and safety regulation.

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Protest in response to factory collapse
Source: “Bangladesh Vows Reform Amid Allegations of ‘Modern Slavery’,” CNN

The backdrop for the catastrophic event at Rana Plaza is growth of the garment industry in Bangladesh. For much global trade, labor costs are only one part of the business equation. But in some spheres, like apparel, textiles and toys, cheap labor still is vital. And, as one of the poorest nations in the world (Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million, ranks 192nd in terms of per capita income), the minimum wage for the about 3.5 million garment workers (80-90 percent women) is about $38 dollars per month (one of lowest in the world). As wages in China have risen, international buyers have shifted attention to Bangladesh where thousands of garment factories now produce between $18-20 billion in goods annually, which constitute about 80 percent of the nation’s export volume and 10 percent of GDP.

The threshold question is whether the government of Bangladesh has established adequate laws and regulations relating to worker health, safety and well-being which provide appropriate nominal protection when compared to norms in other nations.

(…) Having been criticized sharply for poor labor practices in suppliers, most well-known global companies (or their brands) have established labor standards for the companies from whom they buy product, either individually or through industry associations. They audit compliance with those standards themselves or through independent organizations. But, there are several problems. The standards may depend on local law which is inadequate or does not cover key technical issues (like building codes). When there are violations, the buyers may simply cut off the suppliers rather than helping them improve their practices, leaving workers no better off. Standards therefore my lead to buyers with visible brands to find select suppliers who are “up to code” but leaving many, many more who impose sub-standard conditions on workers. And sometimes, global buyers simply leave the country when they conclude that conditions are so bad, and compliance with standards so hard to ascertain, that they don’t want to take the risk of having their brand associated with product from that country. In the case of Bangladesh, both Walt Disney and Levi-Straus, two iconic U.S. brands, have pulled out of the country altogether.

(…) Many commentators have drawn an analogy between the collapse of the Rana Plaza in the Bangladesh Capital of Dhaka and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York which claimed 146 lives. The 1911 event led to formation of a strong union (The Ladies Garment Workers) and much-needed reforms. But the Rana Plaza catastrophe represents a more complicated set of fractured global relationships, responsibilities and financial capabilities. Without greater clarity from an authoritative international body about these relationships, responsibilities and ability to pay, needed reform — which goes beyond mere rhetoric urging change — may be buried just as tragically as the more than 900 people under the Bangladesh rubble. And a double tragedy would be if reform efforts in Bangladesh drive garment makers and international retailers to other low cost countries which have not been in the spotlight–e.g. Pakistan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia–but where worker health and safety problems are much the same.” (The Atlantic)

In spite of these concerns, and reports that better safety enhancements in factories would only “raise clothing prices by about 25 cents,” in early June, Reuters reported that “Bangladesh Garment Sales Soar Despite Deadly Incidents”:

“Bangladesh’s exports rose 15.43 percent in May to $2.54 billion from a year earlier thanks to stronger clothing sales, the Export Promotion Bureau said on 9 June, even as the country reviews safety standards at factories after two deadly incidents. Garment exports totaled $19.3 billion for the 11 months that ended in May, nearly 12 percent more than a year earlier. The sharp increase comes as the government weighs industry reform after the collapse in April of the Rana Plaza factory complex killed 1,129 people. A fire at another factory last year killed 112. (…) Duty-free access offered by Western countries and low wages have helped make Bangladesh the world’s second-largest apparel exporter after China, with 60 percent of clothes going to Europe and 23 percent to the United States.

The European Union and the United States had threatened punitive measures in order to press Dhaka to improve worker safety standards after the collapse in April of the illegally built factory.” (Reuters)

In a marginal sign that some steps have been taken to lessen the probability of such a tragedy happening again, authorities suspended seven inspectors allegedly responsible for failing to check the factories for safety. (Associated Press) Nonetheless, the problems manifesting in this tragedy are clearly more emblematic of deeper issues, as is evident by reports of “Another Garment Factory Scare in Bangladesh” (New York Times) in mid-June.

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Headlines

The Midlife Crisis of Bangladesh

Bangladeshis want a reckoning with their bloody past. But can they do it without partisanship?

41 years on, Bangladesh is trying to confront the traumas that accompanied its birth as a nation. But so far the process of coming to terms with the past is proving anything but simple. Bangladeshis are watching in suspense as a high-profile trial aims to clarify responsibility for crimes committed during the bloody 1971 struggle for independence from Pakistan. The trial, known as the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), is exploring the unsolved killings allegedly committed by militias and political groups that sided with Pakistan during the conflict. But the resignation of a key judge, the disappearance of a vital witness, and allegations of political meddling have all cast doubts on the impartiality of the proceedings — and left many wondering whether the promise of a cathartic reckoning is yielding instead to the imperatives of old partisan feuds. (…) Chief among the defendants are the elderly leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, the largest Islamic political group in the country and a coalition partner of the primary opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The Jamaat is traditionally seen as more pro-Pakistan. The ruling Awami League, which leans toward India, tends to have a more secular stance; it traces its political lineage back to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, when Bengali nationalists in what was then known as “East Pakistan” led a fight to break away from the control of Islamabad. Estimates vary on the numbers of Bangladeshis who perished in the conflict: The figures range from tens of thousands to three million. Possibly hundreds of thousands of women are believed to have become the victims of brutal sexual crimes at the hands of paramilitaries and the Pakistani military. Rape and butchery were seen as a strategy of the Pakistani military in its efforts to crush freedom fighters and to purge the non-Islamic elements of Bangladeshi society, through the targeting of Hindus and intellectuals. (…) Many of the most serious perpetrators are either dead or in Pakistan, where they fled after the war. But the fact some of them continued to participate in the country’s political life for decades after the war rightly concerns many Bangladeshis. This also means that it is nearly impossible to separate the trial from current partisan maneuverings. Over the past forty years, Bangladeshi politics has remained split between more conservative pro-Pakistan forces, who support a vision of Bangladesh as an Islamic nation above all else, and those who favor a country with a more secular, distinctly Bengali identity. (Foreign Policy)

Violence Flares Amid Bangladesh Nationwide Strike

Protesters clashed with police in several towns across Bangladesh on 10 June as the latest strike declared by the  Jamaat-e-Islami party paralysed much of the country. Shops and schools were closed in the capital Dhaka and major roads were largely deserted after the Jamaat-e-Islami party called for a nationwide strike to denounce the jailing on 9 June of few leaders by a war crimes tribunal. (…) Jamaat called the strike to protest the jailing on 9 June of two leaders, including a member of parliament, for three months for contempt of court, a decision likely to further fuel tensions between the secular government and religious parties. Jamaat lawmaker Hamidur Rahman Azad and the party’s acting deputy Rafiqul Islam Khan were sentenced in absentia by the controversial International Crimes Tribunal, which is trying people for war crimes. More than 150 people have been killed in protests to denounce verdicts by the tribunal over atrocities committed during the nation’s bloody war for independence in 1971. The opposition parties, including Jamaat, have called more than 30 strikes this year, protesting at what they say are “show trials” of leading leaders and demanding elections under a caretaker government. The tribunal has convicted four other top leaders including a vice-president of Jamaat who was sentenced to death for war crimes. Two officials from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition, and eight other Jamaat officials including its top leader are still on trial. A verdict against Ghulam Azam, the wartime head of Jamaat, is expected later this month. Human Rights Watch has said the tribunal’s procedures fall short of international standards. The government says the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the 1971 war in which it says three million people were killed and 200,000 women raped. Independent estimates put the death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000. (The Express Tribune, Pakistan)

Bangladesh Opposition Holds First Rally after Ban

Bangladesh’s main opposition on 11 June demanded elections under a neutral caretaker government as it staged a rally despite the government imposing a ban on all political gatherings for one month. Deputy head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, told the rally of up to 15,000 people at the capital’s Suhrawardy Udyan memorial that his party would not take part in any polls under the incumbent government. “There will be no polls without caretaker government,” he said to loud cheers, adding that the party would continue demonstrations until the government restores a neutral caretaker system of government during election time. The caretaker system, under which a neutral administration takes over power to oversee polling, was scrapped by the government, led by the Awami League party. The next general election is due in January 2014. The rally was the first by the opposition after the government on May 19 slapped a ban on political meetings and gatherings for a month in the wake of deadly protests by Islamists that left dozens of people dead. Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan told reporters at the time that the government “will not allow any parties to hold rallies in the next one month” in line with a bid to curb political violence. (Gulf Times)

Bangladesh Lifts Ban on Youtube, Blocked after Anti-Islam Film

Bangladesh on 5 June lifted a ban on video-sharing site YouTube which has been blocked since September after an online anti-Islam movie spawned violent protests across the Muslim world. The amateur video that denigrated the Prophet Mohammad, billed as a film trailer and made in California with private funding, provoked a wave of anti-American unrest in dozens of Muslim countries in September. “The ban has been lifted as it was hurting thousands of people who use YouTube for good purposes such as educational or research,” said Sunil Kanti Bose, head of Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory body. For most Muslims, any portrayal of the Prophet is considered blasphemous. (Dawn)

Kmart and Target Sign up for Safety Accord for Bangladesh Textile Industry

Australian retailers, Kmart and Target have become the first retailers from the country to sign a safety accord for the Bangladeshi garment workers. About 40 global brands have already signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety following accident that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Bangladeshi garment workers at Rana Plaza in April. Under the accord, the workers will have the power to refuse from working in dangerous buildings and mandates independent building inspections. Target Australia managing director Stuart Machin has said that the officials from the company will soon visit Bangladesh to meet with factory owners and workers. “Signing the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement further strengthens our commitment to the wellbeing and safety of those working in our Bangladesh supply chain. It also provides our customers with another level of confidence in the products they buy from us and quite simply, this is the right thing to do,” he said.  (TopNews, New Zealand)

After Bangladesh Factory Disasters, Villagers with Kids in the Garment Industry Want them Home

Twice a year, buses filled with garment workers come rumbling into Tekani, shaking the houses made of mud and tin, and alerting villagers that their loved ones are home for the holidays. Wearing new outfits bought specially for the Muslim Eid festival, and boasting of a regular income, they cut a striking image of success in a village where most own no land, have no steady jobs and are among the poorest people in one of the poorest regions of one of the world’s poorest countries. Three days later, the buses begin the nine-hour ride back to suburban Dhaka, creeping along the same narrow road covered with drying rice husks and jutted with potholes. The workers are invariably joined by hundreds of fresh recruits from Tekani and its sister villages who will work alongside them in factories making clothing worn around the globe. They are the fuel that powers a $20 billion garment industry that is the world’s third-largest. Mosammat Almuna Begum once dreamed of sending her 21-year-old daughter on one of those buses. No longer. “It’s better to stay hungry here,” she said. “There is no safety there.” (Fox News, Associated Press)

World Bank Launches Bangladesh Enterprise Survey 2013 to Assess Bangladeshi Business Environment

The World Bank has launched the Enterprise Survey in Bangladesh to assess the business environment and investment climate barriers that limit economic growth. The survey is part of a global project in South Asia and would include interviews with over 1550 manufacturing and services companies. The survey results along with additional information from other studies constitute a source of policy recommendation for government to promote investment, productivity and economic growth. The previous Enterprise survey in Bangladesh was conducted in 2007. The World Bank publishes aggregate measures of the survey data online where more than 100 indicators of the private sector are created on topics such as infrastructure, access to finance, and business- government relations. This data is easily comparable with similar indicators for other countries. ‘A thriving private sector is at the heart of a country’s development.  Private investment leads to higher growth, more jobs, and greater prosperity, thus helping to reduce poverty levels.’ said Johannes Zutt, World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh and Nepal. ‘The survey results, along with previous data, will help us to understand the dynamics of the Bangladeshi economy and to identify further ways to help private businesses to success–both at home and abroad.’(World Bank)

Transporting Food Grains for Northeast India via Bangladesh Begins

Transporting food grains for the mountainous northeastern states of India via Bangladesh began on 9 June, and the first consignment is expected to reach Tripura within 10 to 15 days, officials said. “A barge carrying the first consignment of 3,000 tonnes of foodgrains for Tripura left Haldia port (in West Bengal) 6 June for Ashuganj river port in Bangladesh. From Ashuganj port, the food grains would be ferried to Tripura by road,” a senior official of the Tripura food department told IANS. He said: “The first consignment is likely to reach Tripura within 10 to 15 days. In the next few months 10,000 tonnes of foodgrains for Tripura would be transported by this route.” Ashuganj river port in eastern Bangladesh under Brahmanbaria district is 35 km from Tripura capital Agartala. “Initially, the Bangladesh government has agreed to transport 10,000 tonnes of foodgrains for Tripura through its territory,” Tripura Food and Civil Supplies Minister Bhanulal Saha had earlier told IANS. “Due to shortage of rail wagons, inadequate storage facilities, transportation hiccups and various other bottlenecks, the northeastern states have been suffering from poor supply of food grains for most part of the year, especially during the monsoon,” the minister pointed out. After getting the green signal from Dhaka, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) had initiated the process to transport food grains and essentials using the Bangladeshi river port and the roadways connected to the northeastern states. (…) Surface connectivity is a key factor as the hilly region is surrounded by Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and China, and the only land route to these states from within India is through Assam and West Bengal. During the monsoon season (June to September), road transport becomes very difficult in the mountainous region due to floods and landslides. For ferrying essentials, goods and heavy machinery from abroad and other parts of the country, India has for long been asking Bangladesh land, sea and rail access to the northeast. (News Track India)

Not Just Bangladesh, Garment Makers Pressured in Cambodia as Well

As investment in Cambodia’s textile industry surges, so is labour unrest, putting pressure on suppliers to the world’s big garment brands to raise wages and improve sometimes grim conditions in one of the last bastions of low-cost factories. Hundreds of angry workers rampaged in early June through a textile plant in Cambodia that supplies U.S. sportswear company Nike Inc, clashing with police over their demands for a pay hike. The violence came just weeks after over 1,100 workers were killed in the collapse of a building housing garment factories in Bangladesh, another impoverished Asian nation where mass-produced textiles are the biggest export earner. Cambodia is considered one of the better locations in the world for low-cost garment manufacturing with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) monitoring pay and working conditions at many factories. But strikes and sometimes violent protests have been on the rise as unions emboldened by a shortage of skilled workers press complaints that companies have failed to raise wages enough or improve safety. Strikes by the country’s more than 300,000 garment workers nearly quadrupled last year to 134, according to the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, the main industry body. The 48 strikes so far this year are already more than in the whole of 2010 or 2011. (Reuters)

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