The international clothing companies may not be directly liable; yet they cannot evade responsibility. Notably, Ireland’s Primark (with operations across Europe) and Canada’s Loblaw have been remarkably swift in offering compensation to victims and their families. But compensation can alleviate suffering only very partially as the industry thrives on exploitation. As it turns out, the collateral cost to meet the high-street’s appetite for cheap clothes ~ on either side of the Atlantic ~ can be hideously catastrophic.
THE scale of the garments factory disaster in Bangladesh is much too horrifying to contemplate, and will probably turn out to be much greater in the weeks ahead. Overall, it testifies to the scant regard for the working class in a booming industry with a literally readymade offshore clientele. The death toll had touched 1127 till last Monday afternoon. And the in-parallel decision of the country’s cabinet to dramatically revamp the labour laws, pre-eminently to ensure the legitimate rights of workers in the garments industry, is a horribly belated initiative for a country that attained nationhood four decades ago. It is more than obvious that the human factor was accorded a calculatedly minor rating as successive governments have oscillated between perceived secularism and fundamentalist design.
The essay towards the welfare of the worker has been announced in the aftermath of the worst industrial disaster in the subcontinent after the Bhopal gas leak in December 1984. Aside from a hike in salaries, garment workers will be allowed to form trade unions without permission from factory owners. This is quite the most critical feature of the government’s blueprint, which will have to be approved by parliament. Additionally, factories will have to be modernised and workers provided with direct deposits to bank accounts to guard against such “abuses” as withholding or delaying salaries as expressions of vindictiveness. Effectively, it amends the 2006 Labour Act by lifting restrictions on forming trade unions in most industries. The old law required workers to obtain permission before they could form unions. Not that the law enacted in 2006 disallowed trade unions; they do exist in many of Bangladesh’s other industries. Yet the owners of garment factories never did allow them; they remain an oddity both in terms of exploitation and human rights in a purported democracy.
The welfare handout is seemingly benevolent, but it will be hard for the Awami government to dispel the dominant impression that it is an afterthought after enough have died and many more incapacitated. It isn’t quite embedded in the Benthamite doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number. If it were so, humane conditions would long ago have been in place, transcending seemingly secularist and decidedly fundamentalist blather. The government’s initiative, announced at a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Hasina, is essentially a direly embarrassed administration’s response to one of the worst industrial disasters in South Asia in the year before the national elections. The war-cry at Shahbag Square against the Pakistan army’s repression in 1971, perfectly valid though it is, chimes oddly with the industrial oppression 40 years after freedom was attained.
The visuals almost defy belief. Reshma, the employee of a garment factory who was rescued after 17 days beneath the rubble, personifies the underbelly of a range of entities in Bangladesh ~ the booming real estate enterprise, the oppressive garment factories, the greedy Western clientele, and a largely impervious government. Collectively, they cannot evade responsibility. The collapse of Rana Plaza at Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka has been more than just a high-rise cave-in. This is much too palpable as the grim drudgery of digging bodies and rescuing the survivors would suggest. It has been a horrific disaster, the deadliest in the history of the clothing industry. Hence the international focus on the dangerous conditions in the factories that produce clothes for North America and Europe… and in the process showcase industrial exploitation at its worst. For a single day’s absence, the predominantly female workers suffer a pay-cut for three days; even women in an advanced stage of pregnancy had to report for duty when the building had started cracking up. Worried workers were threatened with the sack if they failed to turn up.
Given the enormous foreign exchange potential of the sweat-shops ~ a cruel irony if ever there was one ~ it was some time before the government eventually woke up to a grotesque trampling of human rights in this commercial complex, one that caters to the Western brands with the “made in Bangladesh” tag. Western companies happen to be major clients and this is the grim message from the rubble in Savar ~ one that we hope will cross oceans. The brands using these facilities must be named, and their goods boycotted. This is the only way to battle greed. The international clothing companies may not be directly liable; yet they cannot evade responsibility. Notably, Ireland’s Primark (with operations across Europe) and Canada’s Loblaw have been remarkably swift in offering compensation to victims and their families. But compensation can alleviate suffering only very partially as the industry thrives on exploitation. As it turns out, the collateral cost to meet the high-street’s appetite for cheap clothes ~ on either side of the Atlantic ~ can be hideously catastrophic.
The Savar tragedy places the Awami League government ~ now contending with an Islamist backlash ~ on test. It cannot evade its culpability for having failed to enforce town planning and building regulations, a failure that it shares with administrations on this side of the border as well. A prickly sense of nationhood alone explains why Dhaka has turned down offers of assistance in rescue operations from the international community. Arguably, more lives might have been saved and Reshma rescued long before she actually was. Having seen daylight after spending 17 days beneath the debris, she can only thank her destiny… and not the government or its disaster management wing, such as it exists.
Given the scale of the disaster, the amendment to the labour laws must of necessity conform to international standards. The government will have to contend with the grim working conditions of the $ 20 billion industry that covers 5,000 factories across the country and 3.6 million garment workers. There must be a Rana Plaza too many dotting the Bangladesh landscape. The exploitation, therefore, has been overwhelming. Altogether a lethal cocktail of official corruption and ineptitude, desperation for jobs matched with desperately cheap labour, and the industry’s negligent nonchalance. Over time, Bangladesh has emerged as the world’s third largest exporter after China and Italy. Theoretically, this might testify to the resilience of the garments industry, one of the major props of the national economy. Yet the collateral cost ~ appalling at any given point of time ~ can turn out to be still more devastating as the tragedy has unfolded since 24 April.
The writer is a Senior Editor, The Statesman
via special article.
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