As Death Toll Passes 500, Brands Consider Pulling Out of Bangladesh Factories

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Nine days after the fatal collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Sahar, Bangladesh, the death toll has surpassed 500, and the outcry against the conditions, companies and governance responsible is augmenting.

Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest apparel exporter after China, with 80 percent of those exports servicing the US and the European Union. In return, those big brands provide jobs and support for millions, but is that enough? After multiple fatal accidents, western brands face harsh scrutiny over sourcing policies and the obvious lack of labor and safety regulations put into place by its suppliers. 

“We need to be careful now not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Sara Hossain, a high-court lawyer in Bangladesh to TIME. “The question should not be shutting down the factories. It should be, ‘How do you make employment safe and secure?’” Garment factories in Bangladesh pay the most and carry a certain cachet for that reason, despite safety issues. “Young men and women with a few years of schooling consider that the RMG [sector] gives them more independence and [makes them] more socially acceptable,” added Rushidan Islam Rahman, research director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.[more]

While social activists decry the complicity of brands in these continuing disasters, others, like Alonzo Suson, Bangladeshi director for labor-rights organization Solidarity Center, argue that, “It’s the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens. It’s not the brands’ responsibility to do that,” and while advocating compliance with safety standards, he adds, “it’s not correct to say everything is the brands’ problem.”

Increasing amounts of blame have fallen on the heads of retailers like Primark, Mango, Benetton and Walmart, whose primary concern is sourcing the cheapest labor in order to pay less per garment. While many businesses tout ‘ethical sourcing’ standards and programs to improve the lives of factory workers, the accidents in Bangladesh have put a spotlight on the apparent gaps in the enforcement of such policies.  

Shahidullah Azim, VP Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, points out that it’s a two-way street. “The retailers only talk about ethical sourcing. I think this is the time we start talking about ethical buying,” he told The Huffington Post. “How much less you could pay for a product? How can a garment businessman keep up with this ever-increasing demand? Of course, by using every opportunity to minimize production costs—paying workers less and not caring about workplace safety.” 

After a factory fire in Tazreen claimed 112 lives last year, Disney started taking notice of the deteriorating working conditions and implemented a plan to begin pulling out of production in the country. The retreat was finalized in March, just a month prior to the tragedy in Dhaka. It was a bold move for the retailer, who has sales of $40 billion but had fewer than 1 percent of its goods produced in Bangladesh. Disney has banned production in 43 countries total including Belarus, Ecuador, Pakistan and Venezuela due to poor working conditions and unethical practices. 

“These are complicated global issues and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” Bob Chapek, president of Disney Consumer Products told the New York Times. “Disney is a publicly held company accountable to its shareholders, and after much thought and discussion we felt this was the most responsible way to manage the challenges associated with our supply chain.”

News of the exodus of Disney has struck fear in factory owners, who worry that more major brands will end contracts with factories as more fingers turn to point at them. “The whole nation should not be made to suffer,” Mohammad Fazlul Azim, a member of the Bangladesh Parliament and a notable factory owner told the Times. “This industry is very important to us. Fourteen million families depend on this. It is a huge number of people who are dependent on this industry.”

Bangladesh’s prime minister acknowledged Thursday that her nation’s garment industry is beset with problems, but said her government is moving rapidly to fix them. “Bangladesh now is a place for good conditions for the investment,” said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, according to CNN. “Yes, there are some problems,” adding that a committee on worker and building safety “will submit the findings to the Cabinet committee and, side by side, we have been trying our best to improve the situation.” However, Hasina isn’t fearful that international companies will pull out of Bangladesh en masse; “They get cheap labor. That’s why they come here.”

Indeed, the fast fashion market has fueled major retailers to move their manufacturing operations from China to Bangladesh as Chinese labor prices increase. “There is no other reason why a company would be doing business there,” said Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion in an interview with NPR. “The cost of labor, the costs are going up in China and fashion companies are trying to maintain their margins and trying to maintain their cheap prices, so they want Bangladesh to do what China was doing. But Bangladesh can’t do that.” Cline is convinced that the factory collapse in Sahar will be the last straw for the industry, which has managed to skirt around proposals and laws to better enforce labor and safety regulations. 

After the fire in Tazreen, retailers met to try to come to an agreement that would improve safety conditions at the cost of a few more cents per garment, but retailers fought back, a fight that was spear-headed by Wal-Mart, and the agreement was dissolved. Now, the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement is being pushed by dozens of NGOs, but many brands are remaining mum on the topic. So far, only Britain’s Primark and its sibling Canada’s Loblaw grocery store chain, which owns the Joe Fresh brand carried in JCPenney stores, have vowed to provide compensation and aid to victims and families affected by the collapse, but other retailers implicated including Walmart and Gap have not embraced the movement. 

Galen Weston, whose family controls Primark, Loblaw and Joe Fresh, spoke out against factory managers who reportedly sent workers back into a cracked building as well as the silence of his business peers. “What role does industry play in propagating a manufacturing culture that would take such risks with people’s lives?” he asked in the Times. “I’m troubled by the deafening silence from other apparel retailers on this issue.”

Weston criticized his peers in retail for keeping silent following the collapse, with Loblaw’s management vowing to be a “force for good” in Bangladesh with three promises:

  • A relief fund to provide long-term support to victims of the collapse and their families
  • A new business standard demanding all products be made in facilities that follow local construction and building codes
  • A plan to install Loblaw employees in factories to make sure company’s values are met.

While it’s laudable that Weston and his senior executives are taking a stance, does this commitment go enough? Not according to Kevin Thomas, director of the Maquila Solidarity Network, which has been working to improve global working conditions for 20 years. Thomas says Loblaw’s promise “falls far short of substantive change,” as he told Yahoo! Canada.

“More audits are not the answer. We’ve had years of this kind of auditing and its failure can be measured in the increasing body count in Bangladesh—over 1,000 workers killed in fires and factory collapses over the last eight years,” Thomas told Yahoo! “What Loblaw needs to do is join the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety agreement being negotiated with IndustriALL and other international brands. There is no better alternative out there, and trying to go it alone is a step backwards.”

IndustriALL, a global union demanding international clothing brands join forces to ensure building safety in Bangladesh, has set a May 15 deadline but so far, Joe Fresh is not among their members—nor, as the New Yorker notes, are Gap or Walmart.

Tell us: Do the brands whose garments were produced at Rana Plaza have an ethical duty to compensate the victims and establish more ethical sourcing? Don’t those brands that took advantage of the lower cost of production have an obligation to rebuild and improve—but what should they do, and how to ensure better standards and worker safety to avoid another Rana Plaza or Tazreen disaster? Share your thoughts below.

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