Geopolitics

A Year After Factory Collapse, Bangladesh Under Inspection

What's the price of improved working conditions? Will the global clothing brands just pack up and go to the next cheap source of labor? Hard questions on site in Dhaka.

Have things changed since the April 24, 2013 catastrophe?
Have things changed since the April 24, 2013 catastrophe?
Patrick de Jacquelot

DHAKA — Tongi is one of the many slums in the Bangladeshi capital. Its small houses with sheet-metal roofs offer minimum shelter for at least 20,000 families, many of whom work inside the surrounding large concrete buildings and clothing factories.

Abdul Rahim, 25, is proud that he works as a supervisor in a Dhaka factory, earning a monthly wage of 10,000 taka ($128), which is almost twice the minimum wage. He believes the factory he works in is quite safe, but still worries sometimes. “We saw the Rana Plaza turned into in a pile of debris in five minutes,” he recalls. “We ask ourselves if this could happen in our factory.”

On April 24, 2013, Dhaka’s Rana Plaza collapsed. Some 3,000 people were working in the eight-story building, mostly turning out clothes for Western consumer brands. At least 1,000 people were killed.

The building illustrated the worst of the Bangladeshi factories. It mixed shops, factories and accommodations, machines had been installed in ill-equipped premises, and stories had been added witout any building permits.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, public authorities, unions, local industries and Western distributors have tried to work together to avoid anything similar ever happening again. But people here also know what’s at stake for the entire country since textile production is a crucial sector of its economy, employing four million workers and accounting for 80% of Bangladeshi exports.

Have things changed in the 12 months since?

Shuttering factories

Many Bangladeshi factories work for international clothing brands and major Western distributors that do not like their names associated with deadly workshop conditions and low-paid workers. A few weeks after the Rana Plaza disaster, several foreign companies introduced special agreements to work together with local producers in and around Dhaka. It was an unprecedented process with two objectives: to ensure safety inside the factories and improve workers’ rights.

An organization was established that included some 150 apparel corporations (H&M, Benetton, M&S and Adidas, among them), as well as unions and NGOs, working under the directorship of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety stipulates that more than 1,500 factories will be inspected by September, a “huge but achievable” task, says one of the organization’s officials. Already, several of the most dangerous factories have been shut down.

In a factory of the Mohammadi Group (one of the leading garments manufacturers in Bangladesh), 2,300 workers are busy with the 400 sewing machines to make shirts and sweaters for the Swedish multinational H&M.

Unlike the Rana Plaza, the premises are impeccable and stocked with fire-prevention equipment. “We are certain the building is safe,” says Faruk Hossen, who leads the visit. “The underpinnings are made for a 10-story building and we have only four.”

Yet the manager of the group, Rubuna Huq, feels anxious. She knows that some of her factories are not upgraded to the standards the accord wants to impose. Though the Mohammadi Group has $70 million in annual exports, the manager wonders where the money for this work will come from.

Price of safety

Guillaume Ragu faces the same calculus. This 40-year-old Frenchman came to Bangladesh 14 years ago and now owns a sweater factory, Tandem, which employs at least 2,500 people. He says the alliances made by the accord have two contradictory consequences. “My order book is full until September,” he says. “This has never happened to me.”

That’s because distributors are now choosing the “proper factories.” But even if Ragu’s own factory looks to be in good condition, he knows it doesn’t reach the accord’s safety norms. To respect these would cost him $300,000, and he “doesn’t have the money.” When he asked his retail client to help him, as the accord intends, he was told to manage things on his own.

Baki Srinivasa Reddy, an ILO country manager, confirms that the accord-member corporations are “compelled to give resources” to their suppliers if needed. “But it won’t be a gift. It has to be part of a business offer,” he says.

Inevitably, the factory upgrades seem destined to raise product prices. One French distributor notes that in the West “we only talk about finding the lowest price but not about how to consume in a better way.”

A progressing process

According to Atiqual Islam, president of a local union, progress has been made in the textile industry. “Ten years ago, maternity leave did not even exist. Today, all of this has changed,” he says.

Still a bigger change is on the horizon, and the distributors will have to “assume their reponsibilities and accept to contribute a little more financially.”

For the workers, the monthly minimum wage has nearly doubled to 5,300 taka ($68). But Abdul Rahim has trouble making ends meet, even with his 10,000 taka. With a family of five and a 3,000 taka rent for a single room in a slum, he has to call on a local money-lender.

Some progress was also made for trade-union rights. “In 2011 and 2012, only one union was created in a factory,” says the ILO manager. “Last year there were 96.”

This process still has a lot to prove. It could fail if the Bangladeshi factories and the Western distributors try to force each other to pay the bill.

A visible improvement of the factories’ working conditions is also essential for the Western distributors. If not, they could decide to leave the country, which would be a fatal blow for the Bangladeshi economy.

For now, most of the multinational corporations have signed the accord and vowed to carry on their activities in the country. But according to an official from one of these major brands, if they wanted to they “could leave in a month. Last year, Disney left in a week.”

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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