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.
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?
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.”