The first team of rescuers left the capital within two hours of the collapse. The news channels blared the number of deaths, images of Rana Plaza's collapse repeatedly telecasted. The fire brigade, army and locals were already pulling out survivors from debris, and with more hands onboard, the seemingly impossible rescue mission evolved to one of optimism and miracles. There was a strong odour of dead bodies in the air, not one that you breathe in at morgues – but something rawer, more ominous, more corrupt. As survivors and body bags piled up, and flocks of relatives whose screams of despair filled up the atmosphere, you knew we had been severely wronged, somewhere along the line.
A friend and fellow development practitioner wrote later on his Facebook status how Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza is not a disease, but a symptom. The likes of him have existed amongst us since our liberation – and while we are one of the top RMG exporters in the world, we have paid a heavy toll to match those numbers. In 2005, the collapse of a nine-storey factory in Palashbari killed 70 workers – and subsequent deaths of garments workers in fire, collapse and infrastructural malfunctions have become common story. The recent fire at Tazreen Fashion has led to the death of nearly 120 workers, and the incident at Rana Plaza, just five months afterwards only goes to show very little progress has been made. Several investigative reports have indicated the survivors of Tazreen Fashion have yet to be compensated as promised by BGMEA and the government – and many are still recovering, on their own with no support, from the burns.
Whose fault was it anyway? The government, who should have implemented stricter policies for garments' owners? The BGMEA, who should have acted as a more transparent and strict controlling body? The buyers, such as Walmart and Primark, who should have created stringent policies before outsourcing their manufacturing orders? In a typical food chain, one party tips off another. It is not about shouldering blame, rather finding a single thread that connects the dots and where the thread lost its consistency. In his article for the New York Times, Sir Abed eloquently explains how the RMG sector employs over 3 million female workers – who, otherwise would have been married off early with heavy dowries. As a result, family planning has considerably improved with more long term investments made towards education and economic stability since both man and woman are now bread earners. In retrospect, boycotting brands that adhere to Bangladeshi-factory manufacturing will only take away jobs – because facts show brands will simply take their business elsewhere. China and Indonesia pose as powerful contenders, and in a globally trade-competitive market, Bangladesh will fall behind.
The proposed solution lies with gains. Let's talk in numbers. In 2012, Walmart made a profit of USD 15 billion, while in turn, the RMG sector in Bangladesh is reported to have made an export volume worth BDT 1.2 trillion in 2011-12 (source: Financial Express, December 2012). Disasters such as that in Rana Plaza naturally cut down profits considerably. While international pressure can be created on companies like Walmart and Primark to implement stronger safety policies on offshore factories where their goods are being manufactured, the real pressure must come internally. If BGMEA were to make a fair cut on the market profits, it needs to understand liabilities for its workers must be in place. Factory owners, through their own responsibility need to start enforcing better working conditions – in spite of the barriers and constrains – in order to cater to the market and ensure business isn't lost over avoidable disasters.
In the past week since the Savar tragedy, the private sector has come forward with remarkable enthusiasm to support the victims. If the private sector could equally take responsibility of its manufacturing houses, it is them plus the country that have much to gain in the long run. I have known individual garment factory owners who make it their cause to have better facilities for its workers – and if each owner could be held as accountable, we are looking at an exemplary RMG sector for our country. The formula of cheap labour can no longer suffice to keep an industry going in pace with its competitors, and with Bangladesh's stake on the global garments' market, it is time we push the buyers and controllers, the government and the associations for a few extra cents to ensure they get the quality and quantity that keeps their profit margins well above average.
(Sabhanaz Rashid Diya is a graduate from the Department of Media and Communication at Independent University Bangladesh, and founder of the nonprofit youth organization, the One Degree Initiative Foundation.)