Putting the garment industry’s promises into perspective

The final death toll at Rana Plaza was 1,127.  It was by far the worst disaster in the centuries-long history of garment industry tragedies. Yet, the response of the international garment industry and the government in Bangladesh thus far has been to promise basic safety standards and workers’ rights that should have been in place years ago.

The Dhaka government announced that it would increase the minimum wage, currently at the absurdly low level of about US$38 per month, and allow workers the right to form a trade union without first seeking the permission of factory owners.

Several major international brands signed up to a legally binding commitment to guarantee basic structural and fire safety standards at their supplier factories. The brands that signed up gained plaudits in the countries where their products were sold; neatly diverting attention away from the fact that they had somehow managed to get away with using death traps as supplier factories for so long.

In many ways, the garment industry pact is little more than fig leaf created by some of the industry’s worst offenders to cover their own embarrassment.

Under the agreement, a board of governors will oversee safety inspections and establish fire-safety trainings at about 5,000 factories over the next two years.  Contributions to the fund will be determined by the volume of business each brand conducts in Bangladesh.

Ensuring fire safety and building integrity is absolutely necessary because the notoriously corrupt and incompetent Bangladeshi government is clearly not going to do it.  The government is essentially in league with and dependant on the garment industry, which accounts for the vast majority of the country’s exports and a sizable chunk of its gross domestic product. The owner of the Rana Plaza, for example, was a local politician/gangster who placed no value whatsoever on the safety or even the life of his employees. And Sohel Rana was certainly not an aberration. Indeed, his business/political model seems to be on the rise under the current government in Dhaka.

Given this environment of corruption and collusion, we have to ask how exactly is the board of governors going to ensure that all the factory inspections are carried out in a comprehensive and transparent manner.  What will happen if the inspectors do uncover serious safety violations; will that factory close down until it is brought up to code? Who will pay the workers’ salaries while they are laid off? Conversely, the inspectors might be persuaded to invent violations so that funds can be siphoned off into the pockets of bosses for “repair work.”

Perhaps a better solution would be not to do business with thieves and gangsters in the first place. Rather than inject millions of dollars into a corrupt system, the international garment industry should take the time and effort to locate reputable business partners who may charge more for their products but who can at least guarantee the health and safety of their employees.

Identifying factories that are safe and provide decent pay for decent work, and then giving those businesses a fair deal, is clearly a more effective long-term solution than running around trying to clear up the mess created by decades of dealing with irresponsible business owners who offered the lowest price. Moreover, doing business with reputable suppliers will encourage and give impetus to a more ethical business model in Bangladesh and thereby slow down the race to the bottom.

Major brands will of course have to pass their additional costs on to their customers or reduce the return for their shareholders. Since the latter option is highly unlikely, that means consumers in the developed world will have to get used to paying more for their clothes. That may mean in recession-hit Europe and elsewhere that people buy fewer clothes or decide not to buy their favourite team’s shirt every time it changes. And this would not be such a bad thing. Lower demand and higher costs may mean fewer jobs but the remaining jobs should at least provide a basic living for employees in a safe working environment.

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