An eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed on April 24 in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka killing at least 260 people and injuring over 1,000 others. Reports indicate that over 2,000 people were in the Rana Plaza building on the outskirts of Dhaka when it collapsed. According to local news media, inspection teams had discovered cracks in the building earlier in the week, prompting several shops in the lower floors to close. However, garment factory owners reportedly ordered employees to work on April 24 despite the potential safety risks.
The collapse also comes merely months after a fire in November 2012 in Tazreen Fashions, another garment factory near Dhaka which left 117 workers dead and revived concerns about the local factory owners, officials and foreign brands’ commitment to safety standards. The garment factories in the Rana Plaza building were producing products for major European and North American brands such as Spanish brand Mango, low-cost British chain Primark and Canadian fashion brand Joe Fresh.
Following the incident, Primark issued a statement saying the company was "shocked and saddened" over the tragedy and confirmed that one of its suppliers "occupied the second floor" of the building. However, beyond expressions of regret, global brands have done little to ensure better safety standards.
Companies such as Walmart, which encountered criticism after the Tazreen Fashions fire last year, had contended that the factory was producing clothes without its authorization, shifting blame onto suppliers. Part of the problem stems from the practice of authorized suppliers subcontracting work to factories without the knowledge of global brands. A number of such factories are housed in illegal buildings, which are fire-prone due to poor wiring and usually lack sufficient number of exits.
Labor rights groups such as Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), which seeks to improve the working conditions of laborers in the global garments industry, argues that such incidents will continue until brands and government officials agree to an independent and binding fire and building safety program.
The CCC has called on brands sourcing garments from Bangladesh to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which provides for independent building inspections, worker rights training, public disclosure and review of safety standards. Furthermore, according to the Financial Times, the International Labor Organization seeks to replicate a program that has been successful in improving factory conditions in Vietnam, but Dhaka’s reluctance to acknowledge trade union rights has been a stumbling block. As it is, the country’s 3.6 million garment workers are among the lowest paid in the world and without a comprehensive safety review, Bangladesh's booming garment industry could see its global reputation founder.
According to a November 2011 McKinsey report, garment exports were valued at US$15 billion in 2010, accounting for 75 percent of Bangladesh’s overall exports and 13 percent of the country’s GDP.
A potential cut back in garments imports from Bangladesh by global brands under pressure from human and labor rights groups could devastate the country’s economy. To avert this, Bangladesh would do well to review the safety standards for its garments industry and introduce a more rigorous monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance.