Dostoevsky in his novel The House of the Dead wrote:“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” In my opinion, the metric of measuring the level of economic civilisation of a country can be ascertained by entering the places where workers work and live. The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh reminds us that a workplace for a garment worker can be worse than a prison.
In my research, I often depict Bangladesh as the text-book example of a labour-abundant country with a comparative advantage in labour-intensive products such as garments. In about three decades, Bangladesh has managed to become the second largest exporter of garments, employing more than four million workers. While dedicating the book to workers of Bangladesh, I expressed a benign hope that in an age of globalisation and trade liberalisation, Bangladeshi workers would become active players in shaping their destiny through acquisition of skills and better working conditions. On April 24, 2013, the shocking, live scenes from Rana Plaza in Savar that continuously flashed on Bangladeshi TV channels in our living room in Sudbury, Ontario, shattered that hope and forced me to reflect on human costs of Bangladesh's comparative advantage and success in garment exports.
Victims of the Rana Plaza disaster are now part of gruesome statistics; according to the ILO office in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, each year, about 11.7 thousand workers suffer fatal accidents, 24.5 thousand workers die from work-related diseases and another 8 million workers suffer from injuries at work.
The Rana Plaza disaster has generated debates on causes and solutions. A simple but anachronistic view is that the problem and responsibility are local, not global: the blame belongs to Bangladeshi owners, managers, and government. It's definitely true that the Rana Plaza disaster epitomises the serious governance deficit in Bangladesh at all levels. The global dimension of the problem, however, can't be ignored. Globalisation and trade liberalisation have intensified the “race to the bottom” whereby brand-name companies and international buying agents search for the lowest prices exploiting their monopsony power over many small, struggling garment companies in Bangladesh. In a globalised world, workers' health and safety have attributes of national and international “public goods,” which can't be left solely to owners of private firms and national governments.
A sustained solution to prevent Rana Plaza-type disasters has to be both local and global. National and international outcries and pressures have already forced the BGMEA and the government of Bangladesh to undertake some measures such as raising the minimum monthly wage from $38 to $68 dollars, amending the Labour Act in 2013 to allow formation of labour unions and upgrading the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments. Still, Bangladesh has a long way toward fair labour standards. First, among the major clothing exporting countries, Bangladeshi garment workers earn the lowest wage. According to a report of the Centre for American Progress, the prevailing wage as a percentage of the “living wage” in Bangladesh in 2011 was only 14 percent, lower than in other 14 countries. Second, the Bangladesh government is yet to establish a transparent and fair compensation system for garment workers' death and fatal injuries.
As a member of the ILO since 1972, Bangladesh has ratified seven of the eight core labour standards conventions, but not the Minimum Age Convention (No. 138, 1973).
Bangladesh also has not ratified a number of conventions related to labour standards, such as: 1) Promotional framework for Occupational Safety and health Convention (No. 187, 2006), Occupational Safety and health Convention (No. 155, 1981), and more importantly, 3) Employment Injury Benefits Convention (No. 121, 1964, Schedule I amended in 1980).
A serious issue in the context of Bangladesh is the lack of enforcement of conventions ratified by Bangladesh and lack of awareness concerning labour laws enacted by the Government of Bangladesh.
My interviews with garment workers during the summer of 2014, reveal several facts: a) garment workers are not aware of their rights under the current labour laws; b) although the number of registered labour unions in the garment sector increased, harassment of workers for union activities continues to persist (only pro-government labour unions have been allowed to operate); c) many workers are unaware of the health centres operated by the BGMEA; d) some workers “voluntarily” work even if they are sick; e) unexpected medical expenditures pose a serious burden for some garment workers; and f) some garment workers often purchase basic consumer goods from local stores on credit often at higher than regular prices. My visits to places where some Bangladeshi garment workers live and work evoke the scenes and themes depicted by Charles Dickens of 19th century England.
Increasingly, the garment industry has become globalised through a network involving brand-name retailers, buying agents, input suppliers, main producers and their subcontractors. The brand-name companies may not be legally responsible for unsafe work places in Bangladesh; however, it's their moral responsibility to become part of the solution. Already a multi-stakeholders model involving international brand companies, buying agents, factory owners, the BGMEA, and the Bangladesh government, is emerging in Bangladesh to handle compensations for Rana Plaza victims and to upgrade safety of garment factories. The Donor Trust Fund, chaired by the ILO has been created to raise $40 million; however, thus far only one-third has been raised. Many brands are yet to pay up.
The United States is the largest importer of garments from Bangladesh, importing more than $ 4.7 billion worth of garments in 2014. It is the only major advanced country which imposes duties on Bangladeshi products, collecting more than $788 million import duties from Bangladeshi garments in 2014. As the eighth largest country generating import duties in the United States, Bangladesh accounts for more import duties than the U.K., France, South Korea, and Taiwan. Rather than continuing the ineffectual, punitive measure of suspended GSP benefits, the United States should provide duty -free access to Bangladeshi garments subject to improvements in labour standards. Alternatively, the United States can use part or whole of the collected duty toward health and safety standards of Bangladeshi garment workers.
There is a clear need for a multi-stakeholder model of governance to continuously upgrade labour standards in the garment industry and in other industries in Bangladesh. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety, Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Better Work Programme of the ILO are first steps in the right direction. However, these programmes, by concentrating on a subset of garment factories, may be duplicative and may miss high risk garment factories. For a considerable period of time, the roles of Bangladeshi and international labour unions, Bangladeshi and international NGOs, the ILO, and activists will be critical in forcing factory owners, their association, and the Bangladesh government to promote labour standards in the garment industry of Bangladesh. In the long run, Bangladesh cannot and should not outsource its responsibility of upgrading labour standards to international brands and foreign governments.
A globalised economy driven solely by short-run profit motives is bound to have large and unpredictable blind spots which fail to anticipate death-traps like the Rana Plaza building. As is well known, in 1911, a similar disaster happened in the United States- the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City. The incident was a turning point in worker safety standards. The best way to remember the victims of Rana Plaza is to maintain persistent and concerted efforts involving all stakeholders, local, national, and international, so that the history of this Plaza is not repeated.
The writer is Professor of Economics, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.