Avoidable or Inevitable?
Written by Sabina Khan
No one who saw the recent events in Dhaka, Bangladesh — where an illegal eight storey building, housing garment factories and other businesses, collapsed killing over a thousand people — can fail to be shocked and outraged that this could happen. Who is responsible for this tragedy? Did we indirectly contribute to this through our desire for quality goods at an unsustainably cheap price? How could such a thing be prevented from happening again?
To make some sense of this disaster we need to look at the circumstances. Bangladesh is a very poor country with one of the lowest indicators of wealth in the world. It is often at the mercy of nature, with hurricanes, flooding and monsoon seasons which wreak havoc on the mainly flat agricultural land, wiping out crops and homes on what seems like an annual basis, as well as worsening overcrowding and pollution. Bangladesh has over 33 million children classed as poverty ridden who have little or no access to food, health, education, shelter and sanitation. It also fares very badly in terms of political stability and corruption, with scandals and misappropriation of funds taking place at all levels in both private and public sectors. Wealth inequality between rich and poor, huge to start with, is now widening.
Against this backdrop, Bangladesh has grown its garment industry from a few million pounds in the eighties to around £13 billion today. It accounts for nearly 75% of total exports. Nearly 80% of workers in this industry are women and children who are often the breadwinners in their family. These workers have no other means of work and survival which explains why they put up with the degrading working conditions which I have witnessed first-hand. For many people, the alternative is begging, scavenging or stealing food and other necessities.
Until now, the government was loath to take any significant action towards better working conditions for fear of losing lucrative contracts with the large multinationals to other low-wage countries in the East. Having lived in Bangladesh for over seven years, I am well aware of the effect corruption and bureaucracy can have on working life. A factory owner can often command great power, way beyond any rule of law. Coincidentally, these factory owners and their families make up around 10% of the country’s MPs.
So in Bangladesh enormous multinationals, with revenues many times greater than the GDPs of third world nations, intent on increasing their margins, are coupled with a government fearful of losing their rapidly increasing revenue. This is set against a haphazard infrastructure and an overabundance of cheap compliant labour too frightened of losing their livelihoods to speak out. Hence the inertia in improving conditions for the millions of people working in these fast growing industries.
Will there be any substantial improvements in the aftermath of the worst industrial incident in the global clothing industry, with over a thousand dead and more bodies still trapped in the carnage? The cynical side of me thinks maybe not — especially after hearing a Bangladesh government minister saying it wasn’t “really serious”, as the 500th body was being pulled from the debris.
Is there anything that can be done in the face of this seeming indifference? Initiatives to make the large companies themselves ensure that good governance and effective systems are both in place and working in these factories will help. Measures to ensure workers’ voices are heard through recognising trade unions and worker collectives, and giving them representation on the boards of these companies, will give real power to those whose rights are currently ignored. Our government should encourage large companies operating in Bangladesh and other low-cost countries to take ownership of the supply chain and make the factories subject to their own health and safety controls rather than using exploitative subcontractors.
Tragedies like this are not the inevitable pangs of industrialisation. We live in an interconnected world with greater resources than ever before and such initiatives will allow countries like Bangladesh to grow without such huge cost.