Another Preventable Tragedy in Bangladesh
THE EDITORIAL BOARD
The New York Times, April 25, 2013
The collapse of an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh that killed more than 200 people on Wednesday has again cast a spotlight on the poor conditions in which millions of Bangladeshis make clothes for American and European consumers. In November, a fire at another garment factory in Bangladesh that made clothes for Walmart and Sears killed 112 people.
The severity and frequency of these disasters are an indictment of global clothing brands and retailers like Walmart, H&M and the Gap, which buy billions of dollars of clothes from Bangladesh [Cambodia, too] but have so far refused to demand and pay for adequate safeguards at the factories that fill their orders. An equal if not greater share of the blame falls on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed [Hun Sen -- think Koh Pich]’s government for failing to act despite repeated tragedies.
Meanwhile, there are just 11 collective bargaining agreements in the entire country of 150 million people, and there are only a few unions in the clothing industry. Workers who try to form unions are often fired and beaten, sometimes even killed. Last year, a young labor leader, Aminul Islam, was tortured and killed in apparent retaliation for his work organizing garment workers.
History shows that unions can make a big difference in improving working conditions. In the case of the collapsed eight-story building, Rana Plaza, strong unions could have prevented the loss of many lives by supporting workers who had noticed cracks in the structure but were forced back to work when factory owners threatened to dock their pay and fire them. The government needs to toughen enforcement of its fire and building safety codes. Bangladesh could easily afford more health and safety inspectors: It earns $18 billion a year from clothing exports.
Bangladeshi garment-factory owners and their families wield substantial power in the country, holding 10 percent of the seats in Parliament. And even as they deny their workers the right to organize, they themselves work together through a powerful industry association. There is no doubt that Ms. Hasina will find it difficult to stand up to an industry that is also a big supporter of her party, but she urgently needs to do so to improve the lives of millions of women in her country.
Companies like Walmart and the Gap have offered some half-measures on safety for garment workers, but they can do much more. In addition to demanding and paying for safer factories, they need to put pressure on the owners and Ms. Hasina to allow unions and improve inspections. They are Bangladesh’s customers, and what they say carries real weight. It’s time they spoke up.