Bangladesh factory collapse: What can be done to prevent such tragedy in future?

The garment factory disaster on 24 April 2013 in Savar, Bangladesh has left more than 700 workers dead and many seriously injured with their limbs amputated.  No one knows how many are still missing (“Bangladesh building collapse death toll passes 700”, BBC News, 07 May 2013).  In 2005 a building collapsed in the same town, killing 64 garment workers (“Dhaka factory collapse: Can clothes industry change?” by Sabir Mustafa, BBC News Asia, 25 April 2013).  In addition, hundreds of apparel workers died in fire in recent years.  Why has the garment industry in Bangladesh been plagued by so many disasters?

It was reported that the recently collapsed 8-story building, housing five factories where more than 3,000 people had been employed, had originally been built as a 5-story shopping mall.  However, the building owner had not only used it to house factories but also added three more floors illegally, which municipal engineers had approved (“Dhaka death trap fears follow fatal collapse”, Aljazeera, 06 May 2013).  In the case of the fire last Nov. in which 117 workers had perished, they had found the exit doors to the factory locked, “prompting some to leap to their deaths from the burning building”.  That building was reported to have lost the fire safety certification months earlier (“Bangladesh factory disaster:  How culpable are Western companies?” by Brian Montopoli, CBS News, April 26, 2013), but continued to operate.

The ILO has been at the forefront in promoting international labour standards in the form of ILO Conventions, covering a host of employment and work-related issues.  Its member countries are urged to ratify Conventions, and once they have ratified any of them, they are obliged to enforce them nationally by enacting or revising relevant national laws in line with the Conventions they have ratified.

One such Convention relevant to the latest disaster in Bangladesh is Convention No. 81 concerning Labour Inspection in Industry and Commerce, which the country ratified in 1972(NORMLEX, ILO database).  It aims to secure “the enforcement of the legal provisions relating to conditions of work and the protection of workers while engaged in their work, such as provisions relating to hours, wages, safety, health and welfare”.  Therefore, most of the horrific factory accidents in Bangladesh could have been prevented and many lives spared if the provisions in the Convention had been applied adequately through proper inspection.

Ratifying a Convention is one thing, while applying it is another matter, however.  This is particularly so in developing countries where certain industries have grown so rapidly as a result of massive foreign investment against the backdrop of increased globalization.  The Bangladeshi garment industry has expanded exponentially in recent decades that it now employs about 4 million workers, mostly women, who earn approximately US$40 per month.  This industry has become the pillar of the industrial sector in the country, its total production amounting to more than US$ 15 billion in the fiscal year 2012-2013, constituting 80% of its exports (“Analysis” by Mark Doyle, BBC International Development Correspondent, BBC News Asia, 30 April 2013).

Today, while there are more than 4,000 garment factories operating in the district near Dhaka, which is the center of the garment industry in Bangladesh, only 18 labour inspectors are reported to be monitoring workplaces there (Montopoli, op. cit).  However, the problem is not just the grossly inadequate number of inspectors who may also lack technical capacity to conduct proper inspection.  I suspect that many of the factories have been off-limits to inspectors as they have enjoyed special protection in exchange for creating much needed jobs and helping the country earn foreign exchange.

Factories that have been set up in industrial parks and export processing zones (EPZs) in developing countries, with a large share held by foreign investors, have been known to enjoy extraterritorial rights and privileges.  Investors are attracted to any given country for its strategic location and advantageous cost of production, including cheap labour, but they would consider relocating to elsewhere as soon as the cost of production goes up.  So in order to keep investors satisfied, some influential figures in host countries would do anything possible to keep the production cost low.  This is done by severely restricting workers’ rights or even compromising with the safety and health of workers by keeping EPZs off-limits to inspectors.

If conscientious host government officials try to apply legal provisions in protection of workers, they may be threatened by investors that they would move out to another country.  If conscientious employers offer their employees the kind of working conditions that the workers in other factories in the same EPZ may find envious, the other investors/employers might find such employers annoying or as bad influence in the EPZ.  I heard stories like that in Sri Lanka while being posted as the ILO representative for three years from January 1998.  There, too, the garment industry was the most important foreign exchange earner.  Despite that the country had ratified Convention 81 back in 1956, inspectors had literally been locked out of the EPZs where such factories were mainly located, and were prevented from doing their work.

EPZs in Sri Lanka are administered by the Board of Investment (BOI), then a part of the Ministry of Finance.  Thus, the ILO organized a series of meetings with BOI and Ministry of Labour officials on how to facilitate labour inspection in EPZs.  After painstaking negotiations, the BOI finally agreed to allow an inspector to be posted within the EPZ outside Colombo, and later in another EPZ elsewhere.  National laws should be applicable to all sectors and locations within its territory, unless specific sectors are exempted for valid reasons.  Inspectors should be able to go into any work premises without restrictions to do their job.  Though no disaster like those reported in Bangladesh occurred in the Sri Lankan garment factories during my tenure there, the inspection system in the country was still very much desired.

The ILO promotes international labour standards through its tripartite mechanism in each member country, where the government and the representative employers’ and workers’ organizations are members of the ILO on equal footing.  However, another difficulty I faced with regard to EPZs while serving in Sri Lanka was that the Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters’ Association (SLAEA), the influential employers’ organization representing the garment industry, was not affiliated with the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon, the employer member of the ILO.  This made it almost impossible in those days for the ILO to reach out to the members of the SLAEA on issues concerned to the ILO.

No one should be forced to become a member of any organization.  At the same time, no employer should be able to avoid respecting fundamental human rights and the safety and health of his/her workers guaranteed by national laws in line with international labour standards, of which the government is a signatory.  This should be so even his/her factory is located in an EPZ or even if he/she is not affiliated with the representative employers’ organization, which is an ILO member.

The role of any government is to protect its citizens, including workers.  When a government fails to do so, the outside world has a moral obligation to act, especially if it is benefitting from the situation where workers are being exploited without adequate safety and health protection.  International retailers sourcing from such a country and making huge profits and consumers in richer countries benefitting from cheap clothes readily available in shops cannot surely be indifferent to the plight of the workers concerned.

After the disaster in Dhaka, the ILO sent a high-level mission to Bangladesh with the intention to develop, together with its tripartite members, the Bangladesh safety plan, to make the garment industry safer and sustainable (ILO Press release, 29 April 2013).  No action plan can change the situation overnight, however.  It requires a long process of attitudinal change and training on all parties concerned.  The government must take a clear position that its legal provisions apply in its entire territory and ensure that inspectors be adequately trained to do their job.  Employers must not treat workers only as a means to gain maximum profit; they are responsible for providing them with safe and healthy work environment as well as training.  Workers are also expected to play an important role in keeping their work place safe by participating in such training.  Since no country would ever have an adequate number of inspectors to cover all work places, safety and health can be secured only through sound industrial relations, and this can be achieved only by respecting fundamental human rights guaranteed by international labour standards.

While ILO plan of action would be indispensable for long-term strategies in making the industry safer and sustainable, it may not give enough pressure on powerful government figures and employers who have ignored workers’ rights thus far to act quickly, unless it has immediate financial impact on them.  The EU is reported to be contemplating an “appropriate action to encourage an improvement in working conditions in Bangladesh factories” by reconsidering “the use of its trade preference system, which gives Bangladesh duty- and quota-free access to markets in member states” (BBC News, 07 May 2013, op. cit.).  Such a measure would give a powerful signal to the employers and retailers sourcing from the country, but I hope it would be applicable to all countries concerned that are exporting clothes to EU.  Otherwise, it would simply encourage them to move to elsewhere where human rights and safety and health laws are ignored, and thus similar tragedy could be repeated.

The NGOs such as Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI), Fair Labor Association (FLA), Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), Social Accountability International (SAI) and Worker Rights Consortium (WRC)) active in corporate accountability can also be an effective instrument in transforming the garment industry in Bangladesh and elsewhere.  They work in partnership with trade unions and international retailers to ensure that the clothes being sourced from developing countries have been manufactured in factories where worker rights and safety and health are respected.   In today’s media-frenzy world, consumers can also send out a powerful but negative message against any retailer if they find it to be doing business with employers with no respect for workers’ basic human rights.  Even a well-established company can have its image severely damaged if it is portrayed as ruthless and non-law abiding.  We must avoid sensationalism in this respect, but in partnership with all stakeholders and through a proper mechanism for monitoring corporate social responsibility, we should be able to help the industry become safer and sustainable.

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