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Worker sleeping in a garment factory in Dhaka
Worker sleeping in a garment factory in Dhaka
Sibylle Haas

-OpEd-

More than 500 people died on April 24 when a factory collapsed near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In November, more than 100 workers perished in a fire at the Tazreen garment factory on the outskirts of the city. Not long afterwards, more than 50 people were hurt in a fire at a textile factory in the port city of Chittagong.

How many more people are going to lose their lives in Bangladeshi clothing factories?

Bangladesh now stands for death. For exploitation and profit. For labor without dignity, and for owners and brands that simply lack a conscience. Bangladesh stands for corruption and looking the other way. For child and slave labor. In the West, it also stands for $4 T-shirts and buyers with an “I-don’t-give-a-damn” attitude.

The latest factory collapse once again showed that voluntary declarations of responsibility on the part of brands mean nothing. International agreements about minimum standards for workers are no more than statements of supposed intent, good PR campaigns for corporate image. They are useless to workers because they lack the power of sanction. The fact that it was the textile industry itself that began pushing for such declarations in the 1990s speaks for itself – the result is out there for all to see in Bangladesh.

The work day of a Bangladeshi textile worker is rife with human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch asked children employed at tanneries about their jobs and heard about how they got to soften animal skins with chemical solutions, cut tanned skins using razor blades, and work the heavy tannery machines.

Dying in Bangladesh’s factories will continue until changes to the law are implemented and abuses are punished by relevant authorities – because on paper, the laws are already there. Human rights are supposed to be respected, no child or forced labor allowed, health clauses, equal opportunity, the right to form unions... it’s all there. These are core norms of the International Labor Organization (ILO). These are the minimum standards of labor laws in many of the industrialized countries where blood garments are sold.

After China, Bangladesh is the second largest textile producer in the world, and the Europe Union is its largest trade partner. This means that Bangladesh as a country depends on the garment industry in industrialized countries. Which means that these companies have power...! Isn’t it about time that they finally put social standards above getting low-cost garments out to consumers?

They are in a position to demand and get decent work conditions in supplier factories, and indeed have the responsibility to do so. It’s too easy to wiggle out of it, whining that the local company they were doing business with was using subcontractors they knew nothing about. If you’re doing business responsibly, you must know that.

Bribes kill

In fact, Western executives in the garment business know a lot of things. For example, that you can get around laws by bribing people. It starts with building laws. In Bangladesh, building permits are often given based on plans submitted, that alone – no on-site follow-up. This is a recipe for corruption and dirty practices. Bribes take care of a law that says that factories have to be open to independent inspection.

The factory that caved in last month had been built illegally, with no protective systems, -- including against fire. Workers were forced to keep working even as cracks in the walls kept getting wider. The tragedy might have been prevented if client companies had sent inspectors to check up on things – good relations with suppliers mean that sending independent inspectors should be possible at any time. Had that happened, the lack of security measures would have been discovered.

An EU mandatory disclosure law could be a first step: companies forced to report on the work and environment conditions in their supply chains tend to take a closer look at them. That would help counter cheap labor, unpaid overtime, and dangerous abuses of work conditions and the environment.

This week Bangladeshi workers came out in droves to express their outrage. And right they are. They too need to insist on better work conditions, the way people in China did three years ago. By standing up for themselves, the Chinese were able to bring about substantial improvements.

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