When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

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.”

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Members of the search and rescue team from Miami search the rubble for missing persons at Fort Myers Beach, after Florida was hit by Hurricane Ian.

Sophia Constantino, Laure Gautherin, Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Shlamaloukh!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where North Korea reportedly fires a missile over Japan for the first time in five years, Ukrainian President Zelensky signs a decree vowing to never negotiate with Russia while Putin is in power, and a lottery win raises eyebrows in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Argentine daily Clarin looks at how the translation of a Bible in an indigenous language in Chile has sparked a debate over the links between language, colonialism and cultural imposition.

[*Assyrian, Syria]

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ