Bangladesh garment industry
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A relative looks at a board posting photos of the dead and missing workers from the factory that collapsed in Dhaka last week. Photo: AFP

Worn down by neglect

Only global action can lift the stench of death from Bangladesh's disaster-prone garment factories and fulfil the promise of the industry

The tragedy that - yet again - killed several hundred Bangladeshi garment factory workers when their building collapsed last week poses important commercial, political and moral challenges to the country and to the global leadership of politicians and business executives alike.

It will not be easy because the difficult questions include what is the value of a human life? How much - or rather how little - are the people of the West prepared to pay for clothes? Do giant multinational companies, such as Wal-Mart, Gap, H&M and Inditex, have a responsibility to insist on - and pay for - safe working conditions in the factories in which their goods are produced?

There are challenges to modern capitalism: can its thirst for constantly rising quarterly profits allow room for a conscience that pays for safe conditions even if it reduces earnings?

There are challenges for governments: can individual governments stop the corrupt practices that are at the heart of many of the problems seen in the Bangladesh fire in November last year, which killed 124 people, and in the collapse of the factory last week in which 377 people lost their lives, with hundreds more missing?

Can governments as a whole or international bodies step in and enforce global standards? Or is one of the first rules of globalisation that no one is responsible, but everyone is squeezing to ensure the lowest production costs and biggest profits?

This is a very unequal struggle. The world's garment business is worth US$1 trillion. Wal-Mart has annual sales that are bigger than the gross domestic product of all but 25 countries. Gap includes the Gap itself and Banana Republic and Old Navy. Philips-Van Heusen makes Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger garments.

At the sharp and vulnerable end of the production line are some very small people, some of whom earn less than US$38 a month for their tough work in crowded and sometimes unsafe factories.

In the middle are some very unsavoury people, many with strong political connections, who will cut corners and defy rules and regulations in an effort to make money even at the expense of workers' lives. The death toll in the November fire was made worse because fire exits were blocked. The eight-storey building that collapsed last week literally like a pack of cards was built shoddily and its top three floors should not have been there at all since the building permission was for five floors only.

Fire swept through this factory in Dhaka in November.Photo: AP
The reaction to the Dhaka fire last year was both encouraging and discouraging. Companies taking goods from the factory that burnt down paid money and offered to help improve standards. Hong Kong's Li & Fung gave lump sums to the families of those killed. Wal-Mart began requiring regular audits of factories and proper fire drills.

But the multinational companies stopped short of accepting proposals put forward by trade unions to improve safety standards across the industry for fear that they would be too costly and would impose legal obligations.

Perhaps the biggest miracle is the very rise of the garment industry in Bangladesh, which is second only to China's, producing US$21 billion of goods a year and employing 3.2 million workers, mostly women in 5,000 factories.

Who would have thought this possible in 1971 when India acted as midwife to rip a sickly new country, Bangladesh, from the Pakistani military? Henry Kissinger was not the only person who wrote the infant Bangladesh off as an eternal basket case, meaning that it would have to rely for its survival on injections of billions of dollars of aid.

Bangladesh owed its creation to tragedy and death. In 1970, a cyclone ripped through what was then East Pakistan, and whisked 500,000 people from the face of the earth - an event which merited just three inches in the , in spite of my midnight telegrams of pleadings from the scene. "For these people, tragedy and death are normal, so what is the news?" responded an editor.

When the East Bengalis elected a new government that sought autonomy, the military rulers of Pakistan ignored the result and then cracked down, killing and raping more than a million people and sending millions more fleeing to safety of squalid refugee camps in India. The Pakistan army was aided by the criminal indifference of an unholy alliance of China and the US, which both looked the other way uttering the mantra that "it is an internal Pakistani affair".

The resources and finances of Bangladesh were precarious with nearly 100 million people crowded into a disaster-prone area smaller than England and Wales, unable to feed itself, with nearly no natural resources and its major export of jute in rapidly declining demand in a world hungry for plastic bags.

Globalisation, the garment industry and the willingness of its women to work in the unsafe factories for low wages have rescued Bangladesh and given it economic hope. Cynics might say that fewer people have died in the two major factory disasters, and in a string of other less noticed incidents, than die daily from hunger and preventable diseases such as malaria.

The problem with global markets is that as presently constituted they pay little respect to national boundaries or human rights. If campaigners press too hard, say, for a minimum wage of US$2 a day or for inspected, safe factories, the multinationals can just take their business to other countries. But it is surely time for international bodies to lend a hand in improving basic global rules and regulations.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Worn down by neglect