Savar Tragedy: the Global Conversation

This post is about the building collapse in Bangladesh. Well, its more of a long, haphazard rant-cum-opinion about the international reaction to the tragedy and how its affecting our garments industry. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Spectacular collapse of the Rana Plaza in Savar that took over 1100 lives (photo: CNN)
Spectacular collapse of the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh that took over 1100 lives (photo: CNN)

1.     Savar and Global Reactions

Safety and compliance in Bangladesh’s garment factories have come into focus after the Savar Tragedy. As the families and the entire nation mourned – a flurry of global knee-jerk reactions were seen.

  1. The number of casualties attracted international media attention
  2. International retail brands that source from Bangladesh became the target of public and media wrath
  3. A global discussion regarding safety and minimum-wages was ignited
  4. International pressure for allowing unionization intensified
  5. International retail giants started considering pulling out of the country altogether – in fears of consumer reactions (Disney led the way)

For a better understanding of how the national and global conversation progressed, take a look the the following:

coulda

actually

Its not like RMG had caused the accident. Yet that’s what the issue has become. And the global conversation is interesting because there’s the TICFA, GSP, AFLCIO involved here. Flexible supply-chains for seasonal fashion, ‘buy-domestic‘ activism and revival of old, English textiles weigh in too. There’s the question of competition from countries like Vietnam, Pakistan and China. There is vested interest involved – the least of which involve Bangladesh and its people. And if the Harkin Bill (1995) taught us anything – its that you can’t legislate a third-world country into developing.

2.    The Case for Bangladesh

Garments and textiles are transformative sectors for Bangladesh. They constitute 80% of export earnings and employ some 4 million people (officially). The economy will go into a recession if the RMG sector is adversely affected. And what about the workers? They’ll be safer, though without jobs. Bangladesh needs its RMG – and that’s that.

“You have to have a job to have job security and safety!” agitated campaigner on Facebook.

Big buyers closing up shop cannot be the answer here: it won’t help the Bangladeshi economy, won’t pay jobless workers, won’t make it easy for  retail brands to move the business elsewhere and certainly won’t put a stop to western consumers’ exposure to cheap, shoddy labor practices. In this scenario, no one wins.

3.    What’s the Issue Here?

The ongoing global conversation is mostly about if ‘garments-workers are really slaves’, ‘why corporations are so evil’ and ‘what country is the next best alternative’. Part of it is image-management for corporations, part of it, is vacuous human-rights activism. Lost in all this rhetoric is the poor Bangladeshi woman who earns $70 a month and does pretty well for herself. If you consider the alternatives, that is. If you think people choose to work in what you call sub-standard conditions, then there’s nothing left to say.

RMG - worker
In Bangladesh, women’s empowerment has been spearheaded by the RMG sector (Photo: diplomacy.state.gov)

“What looks like exploitation to you, is really a lifeline to 20 million people” – me, to fellow WordPresser.

You see, when I am demonstrating in front of GAP – I am actually telling them not to source from Bangladesh, because I don’t want that blood on my hands. No one imagines that Santa subsidizes those $5 t-shirts! “Get it from some other cheap-ass country – and don’t freakin’ get caught with your pants down”, is what I’m thinking. That kind of guilty activism is self-centered and does nothing for the third-world seamstress who has decided to take on this world. If I were in any position to do so, I’d tell everyone, ‘stand up for that seamstress – stand up for real people’.

4.    There is Hope After All

My tributes to H&M which led the pack in signing the accord.
Respect to H&M for leading the pack in signing the accord.

Recently, the government has announced that it will work with the International Labour Organization to institute and enforce minimum labor standards. More than a dozen European retailers have joined a 5-year accord requiring them to pay for inspections and upgrades in Bangladeshi garment factories. The list includes H&M, Benetton, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Inditex, El Corte Inglés and Carrefour.

Nearly all of the major U.S. clothing chains — including Wal-Mart, Target, Gap Inc., and J.C. Penney — declined to sign. In Australia, Woolworths, Kmart and Target – that all have factories operating out of Bangladesh – have declined too. But let’s hope they’ll see the promise in Bangladesh sooner, rather than later.

***

** Breaking news: USA may cancel Bangladesh’s tariff breaks (GSP) **

Sources & Additional Reading

  1. NY Times: After Bangladesh, Seeking New Sources
  2. One Struggle: Why Factories Turn into Killing Fields
  3. The Guardian: Is it Slavery?
  4. Washington Post: Why Retailers Aren’t Signing a New Safety Accord
  5. Asia Foundation: Boycotts Will Not Help
  6. Journalists for Human Rights: Fair Trade Agenda not Rationalized
  7. The Guardian: International Minimum Wage
  8. Clean Clothes Campaign: We Did it!
  9. The New Yorker: After Rana Plaza
Advertisements

2 comments

What do you think? Drop a line - and I will too.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s