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Confronting the Consumer Conscience: Bangladesh’s Textile Industry in Crisis

News & Features | October 7, 2013

Textile factories in Bangladesh were forced to close  Monday September 23rd due to days of protests from workers demanding a raise in minimum wage. The protests came as the culmination of a number of high profile incidents in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The most notorious tragedy occured a few months prior on the morning of April 24, 2013,.More than 3,000 workers filed into Rana Plana in Savar, an industrial district just outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. The decaying factory complex stood at eight stories tall and housed six different garment factories. Around 9:00 am, the concrete walls of the building crumbled, killing hundreds of workers instantly and trapping the rest inside. Over the next two weeks, the death toll would climb to 1,129 as rescue workers combed the wreckage for signs of human life. Later, labor activists revealed that cracks had been visible in the structure for days. However, due to the rush to meet quotas and negligible safety guidelines, factory managers had decided to resume production as usual the following day. With this fateful decision, Rana Plaza became the site of the most deadly incident that the garment industry has ever experienced.

The Savar tragedy marked a turning point in a string of recent disasters in Bangladesh’s garment sector. In November, 2012, 112 garment workers perished in a factory fire, raising questions regarding fire safety and emergency procedures. A similar fire occurred in January of this year, but was fortunately less deadly. However, the devastating human toll and dramatic imagery of Savar prompted more scrutiny than any disaster that preceded it. The Awami League, the political party currently in power in Bangladesh, came under fire after media outlets discovered that one of the party members owned the factory. CNN aired a live TV interview with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who offered a defensive explanation of the government’s involvement in the disaster and the disorganized relief effort. “Accidents happen,” she lamented.

While the Savar tragedy highlighted the faults of both Bangladeshi government officials and factory owners in ensuring labor rights within the garment industry, the link between international firms and the incident sparked intense debate in the West. Rana Plaza produced garments for brands such as Mango, United Colors of Benetton, and The Children’s Place. Most notably, Walmart was closely linked to both the Savar tragedy and the deadly 2012 fire. In response to the wave of negative publicity following Savar, companies banded together to form both the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Both these agreements, signed by major Western fashion companies, promised both financial support and inspection guidelines to improve the enforcement of labor rights in Bangladesh. While these acts are indeed steps towards a brighter future, it is also clear that the companies were concerned with their brand image. Walmart has likely been long aware of the deplorable conditions in their Bangladeshi factories; however, it was not until the conditions posed a significant economic threat that the company took action.

The Savar tragedy occurred due to irresponsibility on multiple levels: corrupt government officials, overbearing factory managers, and greedy Western firms. To truly evaluate the significance of Savar, however, one must understand the complex garment industry at the ground level.

Since Bangladesh gained independence  in 1971, its garment industry has become the most established sector in the nation’s economy, accounting for 77 percent of foreign exports. The influx of foreign companies into Bangladesh mirrors that of China a decade prior: the attraction of cheap labor and lax inspection policies. The garment industry is heavily instrumental to Bangladesh’s recent economic growth. an estimated four million Bangladeshis are employed in the industry. Furthermore, the garment industry has become an important factor in women’s empowerment in Bangladesh, with women making up more than three-fourths of the sector’s  workforce.

Few foreign firms directly own factories in Bangladesh. Some factories are independently-owned by wealthy Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, but most are owned bylarge local conglomerates,—such as Nassa Group, Jamuna Group and DBL Group. These companies services are contracted by firms such as Walmart, H&M, and the Gap. Factory managers, who are responsible for meeting daily quotas and training employees, spearhead the factories. Competition among local players in the garment industry increases the incentive to exploit workers by denying them basic labor rights. The relative inexperience of many factory workers means that most inspections by Western representatives involve the quality of manufacturing rather than the quality of conditions. Most factories in Bangladesh must strain to meet Western demand.

Still, it is nearly impossible to evaluate Bangladesh’s garment industry by Western standards. Bangladesh is a country of profound poverty and unsound institutions. Educated men and women frequently drop out of school to pursue more lucrative jobs as domestic workers for expats or wealthy businesspeople. Therefore, while a job as a factory laborer means wages of just over a dollar a day, long 12 hour shifts, and uncomfortable working conditions, it also guarantees millions of Bangladeshis a livelihood. For many women in the workforce, textiles provide an alternative to prostitution. While child labor is unquestionably an issue in the sector, the problem is complicated by the West’s failure to realize that compulsory education in Bangladesh terminates between ages 12 and 13. Many teenagers enter the garment industry as laborers to support their families.

The Western preconception of the factories themselves must also be re-evaluated. Most factories are indeed hot, unsanitary, and overpopulated, but rather than wages and overpopulation, the question of basic labor rights involves safety regulations and worker benefits. The DBL group, a major conglomerate that manufactures for buyers such as H&M and Esprit, has implemented a particularly effective system. Certain workers are trained both as medics and fire wardens in the case of emergency. Medical, educational and monetary benefits constitute special benefit packages offered to all workers.

While American consumers can do little to raise the minimum wage or end poverty in Bangladesh, they can change the way they behave as consumers. While it is unrealistic to assume that fashion brands will forego profit for ethical issues of labor rights, consumers can adjust their purchasing habits. This does not mean consumers should boycott outsourced goods—for Bangladeshi factory workers this would simply mean fewer job opportunities. When choosing which brands to support, asking the right questions can result in significant changes down the line. Consumers must make it economically beneficial for companies to care about the welfare of a common overseas worker. Changing our shopping habits will ultimately have the most profound impact.