By Christian Winch
One year has now passed since Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed killing over 1,100 workers and injuring some 2,500 more. The devastating collapse of the eight-story garment factory located within the urban sprawl of the capital Dhaka occurred on April 24th and is one of the worst workplace tragedies in documented history. More alarming still is just how common these events are in Bangladesh and how little has changed in the past year.
The booming Bangladesh garment industry accounts for 45% of all employment and has one of the highest mortality rates of any industry in the world. Since the disaster of April last year a further 800 people have been injured in scores of largely unreported fires in garment and textile factories. Rana Plaza gained international attention but what went largely unnoticed and should have served as a warning for all garment factories was an event five months prior to the April collapse where 114 people died in a fire from a factory which made clothes sold by global retailers such as Walmart, Sears, Li & Fung and C&A among others.
Western fashion houses are drawn to Bangladesh for the availability of cheap labour and tax exemptions which has caused a gold rush in the form of a land grab. Approximately 5,000 garment factories now exist in Bangladesh with most built or added upon within the last decade and on in-arable swamp land without construction codes. In a country prone to earthquakes and flooding it is no surprise to those in Bangladesh that these incidences occur. It is an industry which generates continued profits and creates an environment where the government and regulatory bodies look the other way or at least makes them less inclined to act.
In some convoluted way it makes sense for the government to allow the garment industry to continue unabated. It is largely due to the garment and textiles industry that Bangladesh has been identified by Goldman Sachs as one of the “next eleven”. Their government will not act for fear of losing financial progress, all too aware that the appeal for businesses is an unregulated environment where they can operate cheaply with minimal interference.
Some positive changes have been made since the collapse with over 150 companies signing the Accord on Fire and Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding and independent agreement designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe workplaces. Facing international pressure to take action, numerous retailers have committed to a modified version, including Swedish retailer H&M, the biggest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh.
An other is the Rana Plaza Arrangement, a trust fund set up in January for the survivors of the tragedy which has raised about $15 million which is still $25 million short of the estimated amount needed to provide some semblance of compensation for the incalculable loss and personal tragedy experienced by those linked to this tragedy. Despite all of these pursuits for action, conditions are still dire in not only Bangladesh but in places like China, Cambodia and India. It is becoming clear that public pressure on garment industries and a shift in consumer demand is needed to make a real difference.