In the wake of a building collapse which killed some 300 workers in Bangladesh, concerns have revived whether global clothing brands are doing enough to improve dismal safety standards in the country’s most thriving industry. As the death toll continues to climb, it is being counted as among the worst industrial disasters.
When an eight-story factory in a Dhaka suburb turned into a pile of rubble and twisted metal, killing and injuring hundreds of workers, the country was anguished, but not surprised.
Flouting of safety norms in the country’s humming garment factories has been a top concern after a devastating blaze in a factory killed more than 100 people in November.
In the case of the Rana Plaza building collapse Wednesday, large cracks appeared a day before the disaster. A bank and a market housed in the complex decided to close and send employees home, but several garment workshops ignored the danger.
A man walks at the site where a garment factory building collapsed on April 24 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 13, 2013.
Reshma Begum, center, the 19-year-old seamstress who spent 17 days trapped in the rubble of a collapsed factory building talks to the media at a hospital in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 13, 2013.
Rescuers carry a survivor pulled out from the rubble of a building that collapsed in Saver, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.
People work in the rubble of a collapsed garment factory in Savar near Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 10, 2013.
Rescuers carry the body of a victim from the rubble of a building that collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, May 7, 2013.
A woman cries after she identified her relative's body that was recovered from the rubble of a collapsed garment factory building, Savar, Bangladesh, May 3, 2013.
The remaining standing part of the collapsed Rana Plaza building collapses during a rescue operation by the army in Savar, Bangladesh, May 2, 2013.
Relatives mourn as they look for garment workers, missing after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 2, 2013.
Workers dig mass graves during a burial of unidentified garment workers, who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 1, 2013.
A boy covers his nose with a cloth as people gather in front of mass graves during the burial of unidentified garment workers, who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, May 1, 2013.
A woman waits for news of her relative, a garment worker, who is missing after the collapse of Rana Plaza building, in front of missing people posters in Savar, Bangladesh, April 30, 2013.
Firefighters and army personnel are blanketed in thick dust after part of the garment factory building collapses after being dislodged as part of the clearing process in Savar, near Dhaka, April 29, 2013.
Crowds gather at the collapsed Rana Plaza building as people rescue garment workers trapped in the rubble, Savar, Bangladesh, April 24, 2013.
Economist Mamun Rashid in Dhaka says part of the problem has been the rapid expansion of the garment industry in Bangladesh.
A decade ago, it was largely a home-based industry. Now businessmen are moving to wherever they can find space to meet the huge flow of orders from Western clothing retailers. In the process, says Rashid, standards have often been compromised.
"This has grown in a kind of unplanned or semi planned way so fast that possibly entrepreneurs could not look at safety standard compliance on a 100 percent basis," said Rashid. "There are of course government approvals and monitoring disconnects happening. There are lack of industry inspectors or factory inspectors and issues with regard to factory standards, building standards and workers safety within the plant."
Home Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir said the building which collapsed had violated construction codes. One example: the eight story-structure only had permission for five stories. Questions are being raised as to why inspectors did not notice this earlier and shut it down, especially after cracks appeared.
Global retailers responsability
Labor activist groups in Bangladesh and abroad say global retailers must share the burden of improving unsafe conditions in their suppliers. Labor groups have been lobbying for two years with Western companies to sign onto an agreement that would involve independent inspections, structural upgrades and fire safety systems in the country’s garment factories.
Only two companies (PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Tchibo, a German retailer), have endorsed it so far, but they also want other companies to come on board first.
A spokesman for Europe based Clean Clothes Campaign, Ineke Zeldenrust, says their warnings to Western retailers have gone unheeded.
"What we see the corporations doing is all now starting to pay lip service to this unrest by proposing maybe cosmetic changes where they will add a bit of worker training, they will maybe do a little bit of improved audit, but they are not willing to make the fundamental changes in their sources practices and in the way they do their business," said Zeldenrust. "We really believe that after what has happened now, how can they close their eyes? It is very important that buyers commit to paying the kind of prices that will enable repairs to be made."
Need to improve infrastructure
Analysts admit that the cutthroat garment industry competition that has made Bangladesh the world’s second biggest supplier for global clothing chains means margins are thin. That can leave factory owners with little capital to invest in improving infrastructure.
Shafiul Mohiudeen Islam is the former president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Association. The lobbying group for the industry had warned the owners of the collapsed factory not to operate, but apparently no one enforced the warning.
He says that although improving safety conditions is a priority, it can be difficult because of the enormous economic pressure on small and medium sized garment businesses.
"Here everything is cost, everything is cost," said Islam. "You dont have choice. It is the buyers market. End of the day all the superstores and retail chains they are dominating the price. Price is not dominated by manufacturers.”
Unsafe conditions in the $20 billion industry are not the only concern. Wages as low as $37 a month for four million workers have also triggered unrest in an industry growing so quickly that some believe it could eventually overtake world-leader China.