On April 24, Bangladesh witnessed its worst industrial disaster when Rana Plaza, a large building containing several textile factories, collapsed. The devastation was immense, the death toll currently exceeds 700, with many more injured. This was not the first disaster to strike the country’s garment sector – last November a serious fire in another facility killed more than 100.
Protests erupted in Dhaka following this latest tragedy, and the spotlight has quite rightly turned to the issue of how conditions and safety can be improved in the country, even as work continues at the disaster site.
The clothing and garment industry are incredibly important for Bangladesh’s economy. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s export earnings come from the US$20 billion industry. Although the Pope recently expressed shock that wages can be as low as US$50 a month, a level he compares to “slave labor,” the industry has helped millions of impoverished people achieve better lives, especially women from rural areas. This latter fact helps to explain why the vast majority of those involved in the tragedy were women. With approximately 60 percent of Bangladesh’s clothing exports heading to European Union (EU) nations, and a significant amount of the remainder to the U.S., the elevated levels of consumer awareness found in these markets has almost guaranteed a strong reaction.
In the wake of the disaster, there has been a worldwide media and consumer reaction on Bangladesh’s working and safety conditions, with some companies taking a lead in acting or planning action on the issue. The disturbing news images and reports from Dhaka have created an emotionally charged atmosphere in discussions, with some groups and individuals and trade blocs even suggesting a boycott of Bangladeshi suppliers.
It is not just the EU considering drastic action. Since the disaster, it has emerged that the U.S. was already considering revoking the country’s “preferred trade status” due to concerns about treatment of workers in Bangladeshi factories. Disney has already taken action against the South Asian nation, and others who have not acted now face much more media and public scrutiny.
It is almost certain that a full boycott of Bangladeshi garment factories by foreign (mostly Western) retailers and brands would create a much bigger human tragedy than even the disturbing fires, collapses and inexcusably low wages seen in the country. The threat of a boycott, however, could be very useful in forcing improvements to local conditions, and for such threats to be taken seriously, the exit of a few big names such as Disney may well prove to be necessary.
What is clearly really needed is for downstream companies and retailers to put much greater pressure on their upstream suppliers in the Bangladesh. Even if this also requires consumers paying an extra premium on the clothing they buy – not more than 10 cents per garment, according to analysis by the Workers’ Rights Consortium, it is hardly a difficult decision to make.
The process of improving Bangladesh’s working conditions will now almost certainly get underway. Although it is tragic that it took such disasters as the Rana Plaza collapse and last November’s fatal fire to prompt action, at least now various charities, trade groups, corporations and international organizations have the ammunition they need to force through changes that will benefit the lives of millions of Bangladeshis. Concerted, coordinated action must follow.
Abandoning the country altogether would be the worst possible solution. Hence global media and smart interest groups must play an important role by refusing to demonize firms that stay committed to Bangladesh, as long as those firms are working effectively to improve conditions for its people.