On April 23, 2013, in a large eight story building on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladeshis rushed from shops and banks on the lowers floors after noticing deep cracks in the pillars and foundations of the structure. The businesses would remain closed for the day, and signs warned people not to go inside the building. However, the twenty garment factories housed in the upper four floors ignored the warnings and forced their workers to return the next day. On April 24, at around 9:00 AM, the building, collapsed, killing 1,135 people and wounding another 2,000. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the disaster.
International criticism and scrutiny was immediately directed at the Bangladeshi garment industry, a sector that accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports, and employs more than four million workers, most of whom are women. The outrage in the aftermath of the collapse forced Western apparel retailers (who rely on Bangladesh’s cheap labor), the government of Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi factory owners to finally act. As expected, however, progress has been slow. On the one year anniversary of the worst garments related accident in history, it’s important to shine the spotlight on Bangladesh once again to remind ourselves of the invisible human cost behind every inexpensive t-shirt or pair of jeans.
The collapse of Rana Plaza, as the building was known, is unfortunately not an isolated incident. In fact, it is symptomatic of a country riven by corruption and an industry that is often too powerful to challenge. Six months before the building collapse, a fire in the Tazreen Factory near Dhaka killed 117 and wounded nearly 200. This is in addition to three other deadly accidents in the garment industry that took place between 2012 and 2013 alone.
Bangladesh’s garment manufacturing started in the early 1980s with just a handful of factories. Over the years the industry has grown to be the world’s second largest exporter of ready-made apparels. The garment industry brings much needed capital and export earnings to the nation of 165 million. Additionally, many women—who make up the overwhelming number of workers employed by the industry—have found economic and social independence working in the factories. Far away from the villages where many of these girls are from, young workers have found freedom in the hourly wage.
The garments industry in Bangladesh has been a transformative and often positive vehicle for economic and social mobility for many of the rural and urban poor. It is the lifeline for an impoverished nation. This underscores the great need for reforms. While most of the large apparels companies have decided to keep their business with Bangladesh for now, that may change in a moment’s notice. Another such accident could convince the foreign companies that dealing with Bangladesh is too damaging to their public image. In the age of globalization, if business in Bangladesh becomes too costly the multinationals can simply move on to another country. The result would be disastrous for millions of Bangladeshis.
The collapse of Rana Plaza has provided the impetus for some much needed change, however modest. Labor unions, which were violently suppressed in Bangladesh, have been finally allowed to organize garments workers without the prior permission of factory owners—a major concession that was the result of months of protest and campaigning by Bangladeshis. Furthermore, the international apparels companies have taken tangible steps towards inspecting all of Bangladesh’s nearly 5,000 garment factories. However, many of the promises that were made in the emotional high of the immediate aftermath of the collapse remain unfulfilled.
There are many victims and families of victims who have not received any compensation from either the government or the multinationals. In fact, experts say the millions in direct aid promised to victims by foreign companies have not materialized at all. Those who received compensation have yet to be given a new job. While the corporations started to inspect factories over the past year, they have not embarked on the much needed restructuring crucial to averting a future disaster. According to the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a think-thank based in Dhaka, part of that restructuring would have to focus on amending the way contracts are handed out to smaller sub-contractors that lack even the most basic safety measures. Finally, while an amendment to the Labor Act allowing garment workers to freely unionize was successfully passed, it is yet to be enforced in many factories across the country.
Reform of Bangladesh’s garment industry will have to be led by Bangladeshis: workers, labor leaders, factory owners and people. However, it’s critical that those of us in the developed world who benefit from the cheap labor of Bangladeshi garment workers not stay silent until the next deadly disaster. Most importantly, we should be cognizant of the costs borne by millions of workers and laborers around the world that allow us to enjoy our lifestyles. We should strive to hold Western corporations accountable for the lives of workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere, whose struggle is often forgotten in the crude calculus of the bottom line.
Ahsan Sayed is a recent graduate of the Macaulay Honors College at the City College of New York.