by Prama Bhardwaj, Managing Director. Mantisworld
We are all horrified and devastated by the tragedy at Rana Plaza, Sawar, Bangladesh where a collapsed building has killed and injured hundreds of people – many of them working in garment factories within the building.
The death toll now tops 400 and with no more survivors expected to be pulled out, it is likely to grow to 550.
The incident follows 6 months after the fire at Tazreen – another garments factory in Bangladesh where over 100 people were trapped and killed.
There was a huge outpouring in the aftermath of the fire and the momentum has increased further again after the latest tragedy. Sadly over the years there have been several fires, collapsed buildings, other unsafe conditions that have led to the loss of lives in Bangladesh and other countries. Every time people would take to the streets, the media would point their fingers at large brands like Primark and Wal-Mart and people would say “something has to be done”.
This time however, it feels different. The industry and its buyers, the media, the public at large and international governments are all seeking measurable change.
The EU is suggesting removal of duty free access of Bangladeshi garments.
Brands and NGOs are talking together to come up with better policing of building safety.
The Bangladeshi government is under serious pressure to actually implement their safety codes and adopt new legislation.
Perhaps it is the scale of the disaster this time that just maybe something will be done.
The reason why a disaster like Rana Plaza can happen comes down, in my opinion, to the failure of the government to implement and enforce its own laws.
Believe me, I am no fan of the fast, cheap fashion model of the brands implicated such as Primark and Wal-Mart. And it is all too tempting to lay the blame at their door – especially when Primark and Canadian retailer Loblaw have announced they will accept responsibility for the welfare of the workers and duly compensating the families of the victims. However, the question that is running uncomfortably through my mind is “How far do buyers need to go to ensure the local laws are being followed?” Codes of conduct, independent audits, compliance – all these things are there to uphold a buyer’s core values. These core values should, surely, include ensuring workers have a safe and healthy working environment?
We are speaking to all the certifiers we use to ascertain the extent to which building safety is included. Do they check electrical safety and building integrity? Apart from ticking off if there are fire extinguishers and fire exits marked, do they check that the management know how to use them and how to act in the case of an emergency? How are they changing their own audits and codes in light of these tragedies?
The garment sector is massive in Bangladesh. It contributes over $20 billion dollars of export earnings annually. It employs over 3 million people (mostly women who would not have other easy options for employment). However the industry’s size and power has no doubt influenced government. Powerful factory owners are now members of parliament and sit in government. So far factory owners have managed to get away scot free when poor safety standards have led to death and injury in workers.
When I was last in Bangladesh we asked our colleagues if we can include seeing a certificate of building inspection as part our ethical code. He replied –sure you can see them all now, and if a factory hasn’t got one, they can simply pay someone off and get the required stamps and certificates.
The impunity with which powerful industry can act is not unique to Bangladesh. All over the developing world health and safety is easily compromised when a well-placed backhander saves businesses a lot of time and money. I live in Tanzania, and just a few weeks ago a building collapsed in Dar es Salaam killing dozens. In the last two years there have been over 1000 people killed in ferry disasters. All caused by lack of enforcement of existing laws for health and safety. No one has been called to account, and no one is talking about these victims – they are not making garments for international brands.
Another uncomfortable question is that if, for the big brands, the compliance standards effectively include building safety as a prerequisite for all suppliers, what will happen to the non-compliant factories; the sweat shops, where no one is coming in to audit them? If worker safety is to be ensured, then the above reason requires us all to consider the problem from a wider perspective.
We fervently hope the terrible tragedy at Rana Plaza is going to finally galvanise some action. The garments industry, the brands who buy from them, the public, international governments and most importantly the Bangladeshi Government need to get behind a concerted plan to ensure building safety. It is only when factories are forced to close if they are considered unsafe and factory owners are brought to account that the status quo will change properly. It comes down to enforcement of the law and stopping corruption – and it will need pressure from industry, media and the international community. This is true for Bangladesh and many other countries beyond.
The Ethical Fashion Forum is working to draw up a co-ordinated industry response. Please add your voice and increase the pressure for action. Sign up to their Call to Action by Friday 3rd May
Many of the facts and figures above are courtesy of the EFF’s excellent report