Bangladeshi Garment Factories
July 24th, 2021
By: Shazia Emaan
The small South Asian country of Bangladesh, barely half a century old, has made huge strides in the garment manufacturing industry in the past two decades. Bangladesh is the world's second-largest clothing manufacturer, and textile export is its main source of economic growth. These industries are favoured by western fast fashion brands because of their high-quality products at a very low cost, availability of raw materials, and cheap labour. Bangladesh’s success in this sector has increased the country's GDP exponentially as well as helped the country gain global market shares.
However, churning out massive amounts of products at a high rate has some consequences. Bangladesh has been criticized numerous times in the past for its unethical labour practices. The problems range from severe safety hazard violations in factories to an insufficient minimum wage for factory workers. Factory owners face problems such as a lack of advanced technology and low investments. The root cause of this issue is the immense power imbalance between clothing suppliers and the western brands that work with them. The excessive amount of suppliers allows the buyers to set up unfair purchasing practices with less production time, and the suppliers are not able to do anything about it because they never have the upper hand. The brands make it seem like they care about the protection of workers' rights but they also put extreme pressure on suppliers by not paying them enough to have decent working conditions, delaying payment, and canceling or changing orders without notice. Primark, Walmart, Gucci, and many more luxury fashion brands claim to have the highest ethical production standards, but the factories that supply these products on the other side of the world don't live up to that image.
The main source of help the workers have on their side is worker unions. However, forming a legitimate union is very difficult as any attempt to do so is met with pushback from employers. Moreover, in the unlikely event, a union is formed, it is not given any importance and there is also the problem of independent unions being manipulated by political parties, as well as the prevalence of yellow unions, which are unions formed by employers that take control of workers and prevent them from joining the independent union of their choice.
Rana Plaza Collapse And Its Aftermath
It was the Rana Plaza Building collapse in April of 2013 that garnered the world's attention. The eight-floor building contained numerous clothing factories, a bank, and shops. Cracks were discovered in the building's foundation by the workers, but their warnings were ignored by the owner. As a result, the building collapsed one morning during rush hour, causing more than a thousand deaths. What followed was widespread criticism against the government's ignorance towards the struggles of its worker population.
In the proceeding months, both the EU and the United States demanded that Bangladesh improve its safety and inspection measures and improve its status on worker safety. Bangladesh amended its labour laws in July of 2013 that made it easier for workers to form trade unions to monitor and protect worker rights, as opposed to the previous laws that only enabled the formation of a few unions. But the writing of the law and the implementation of it are very different procedures. Workers are still not free from the clutches of their employers who oppose them joining the union of their choice.
The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety
The immediate consequence of the Rana Plaza collapse was the creation and signing of the Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The accord was signed by 214 brands and corporations. Walmart and a few other North American countries refused to sign the accord as the deadline of May 16th,2013 passed. The agreement ensures improved fire safety, safety training for workers and supervisors, a complaint process, and more such measures.
Pressure was put on brands by socially conscious consumers to sign the accord, which holds the brand personally responsible for its supply chain. The accord was successful in forcing some brands to take responsibility and give the suppliers enough funds to have good working conditions, with many workers stating that they felt safe now that they saw proper initiatives being taken for a better work environment.
Another factor in Bangladesh’s supply chain is the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association). It's a national trade organization of all garment manufacturers and factory owners. The BGMEA has been fighting a losing war with civil rights groups and other organizations about worker welfare. The Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) and Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) have both raised the issues of minimum wage as set down in Section 141 of the Bangladesh Labor Act 2006 with BGMEA. But they refuted the claims citing improper method and calculation and stated that there is no international definition of minimum wage. The BGMEA website maintains that all their factories follow international standards and are carbon-efficient as well.
The BGMEA openly resists the Accord’s work. According to Laura Guitterez at WRC, “The Accord was making them do something they’ve never had to do before: make their factories safer and in some cases spend a lot of money to do so...The original public pressure on factory owners that came as a result of Rana Plaza had begun to wear off. Manufacturers started to really push back on the Accord’s role in the industry. There became a very public local campaign against the Accord that was led by the BGMEA.”
There are two circumstances that are going to make life very difficult for the factory workers in Bangladesh.
One is that the accord expired on May 31st,2021. If the accord is not extended it will undo all the work that's been done in the past few years. There is no doubt that it should be extended, with stricter measures and even more brands signing it, if the country wants to prevent more disasters. The accord was successful in identifying many such buildings that violated numerous safety codes, and preventable measures were taken prior to any irreversible damage.
The second is the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused thousands of daily wage workers to be laid off. Brands were canceling orders that had already been in production and moreover refused to pay suppliers for raw materials that had already been purchased, causing factories to have no choice but to close down. The BGMEA estimated the virus had an impact on 1,150 factories that reported $3.18 billion worth of order cancellations.
In addition, the pandemic has given brands a reason to quietly step back from the commitment to the agreement.
The circumstances of Bangladesh’s workforce need to change. The government is obligated to step up and make sure that western brands are not taking advantage of their population as well as regulate their own factory owners and authoritarians. A strictly followed contract should be written at the beginning of any supplier-buyer relationship that includes minimum wage specifications, worker safety compensation for delays, etc. Brands should also publish records showing their payment practices and if they are ensuring workers' rights. We as consumers need to put pressure on brands and prove that their actions have actual consequences. Most importantly, the brands who maintain a perfect cruelty-free persona to their consumers should make sure that the truth remains no different.
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