Saturday, April 27, 2013

Another Preventable Tragedy in Bangladesh

Another Preventable Tragedy in Bangladesh

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. 

Ms. Hasina is a powerful leader who has the wherewithal to enact meaningful changes for the country’s 3.5 million garment workers, many of whom are women. The first thing she must do is enforce Bangladeshi labor laws and safety standards, which theoretically provide protection but are rarely honored. The laws allow workers to form unions and bargain with management on wages and working conditions, but the government has not defended those rights despite promises to do so to international agencies and the United States. 

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.

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