Can Bangladesh clothing factory disasters be prevented?

By Matthew Davies
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Relatives hold up portraits of those missing from the collapse of a garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh
Image caption,
At least 427 lives were lost in the building collapse in Savar

As millions of workers return to the garment factories of Bangladesh, questions are being asked about how tragedies like the building collapse in which at least 427 people died can be avoided.

The Rana Plaza building in Savar had five clothing factories and more than 140 workers are still unaccounted for. Around 2,500 people were injured.

While some observers are calling this a wake-up call, others point to evidence that this is simply part of a pattern of tragic accidents after which little changes.

A very similar building collapse in the same town seven years ago killed 64 garments workers. There have also been fires, stampedes and other incidents at various garment factories in Bangladesh, causing hundreds of deaths.

Last year, more than 100 workers perished in a fire at Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia, a township near Dhaka.

The garment industry accounts for almost 80% of Bangladesh's annual exports and provides employment for about four million people.

So where does the responsibility lie to ensure that such accidents are prevented?

The government of Bangladesh? Local manufacturers? The international brands who source their clothing there?

Or should consumers simply refuse to buy garments made under such conditions?

The European Union said it was considering "appropriate action" to encourage improvements in working conditions in Bangladeshi factories.

It said its actions may include the use of its trade preference system, which gives Bangladesh duty and quota-free access to EU markets.

Professor Linda Scott, DP world chair in entrepreneurship and innovation, Oxford University

The pressure needs to be "multi-fronted", but really it needs to be on the government of Bangladesh.

Image caption,
Western consumers need to start asking more questions, say some critics

Even if the corporations press on the issue, unless it gets enforced by the government and unless it is taken seriously by the local manufacturers - because in most cases these factories are not owned by Gap or whoever, they are just contracted. Without the co-operation of the government in Bangladesh, I do not see how far any of this can go.

So there is another level between the brand and the worker, and that is the manufacturer level.

And in addition, of course, there are the unions which have a role to play and the government which has a role to play, and if no-one else is playing their role except Gap or Primark, then there is very little that those companies can do.

The most obvious thing to do is to take away shopping dollars, and I do appreciate that shopping power, but I am just afraid that moves the problem someplace else.

There is always another country that is happy to take on garment manufacturing. That is why it moves around so much.

If the factories move elsewhere, it does not really solve the problem. It just moves misery somewhere else. And it takes away work from the people in Bangladesh.

Anna McMullen, Labour Behind the Label

We do not agree with a boycott. We think it is a very bad idea. If people stop buying cheap clothing over here, it will have an effect on cheap clothing over there.

It is really the responsibility of the brands, if they are going to be sourcing from countries such as Bangladesh, to put in place measures to make sure workers are paid enough, so that the buildings they are in are structurally sound, that they've got fire escapes, that health and safety are there.

As consumers, we need to start asking more questions. There needs to be more transparency in the industry.

We need to start knowing where our clothes come from, who was the person who made it, what was the address of the factory where it was made and what was the audit from that factory.

The solution to this is very complex. It is about people at all stages of the supply chain waking up to the problems and trying to take responsibility for it.

Paul Collins, War on Want

We take our lead from our partner, the National Garment Workers' Federation in Bangladesh, and they take their lead from the trade union members they support - mainly women - who say that these jobs should be decent jobs that are safe, pay a living wage and do not force them to work excessive hours.

Image caption,
The collapse of the building at Savar is the latest in a series of fatal accidents

But they fear that a boycott campaign would mean they would lose their jobs. They come from rural areas and abject poverty, so they have not asked us to mount a boycott campaign.

It is a systemic problem. Surveys have been done and they have shown over many years that none of the High Street retailers ensures its garment workers overseas are making a living wage.

That is why we say the problem needs to be dealt with by the British government.

The High Street retailers make noises about doing the right thing, but over a decade voluntary initiatives have not worked.

The British government should set up a human rights commission where workers who have been abused and exploited, as a consequence of the actions of UK companies, can seek redress in the British courts.

Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Bangladesh is a very poor country so even if they wanted to implement changes there is not a lot of money to do so.

We're talking about a $500,000 (£320,000) investment per factory to get some of these changes implemented and the brands can afford it. The factories can't.

Consumers are ready for ethical fashion. They want to see fair labour standards implemented and abided by, and they would support it if the brands made headway on that.

Jamie Terzi, Bangladesh country director, CARE International

I think for an incident of this magnitude to occur, we are talking about a systemic failure, where there are multiple responsibilities and, more strongly, culpabilities.

It is not particularly helpful to pick one person or group, the problem is simply too large and too complex.

It is absolutely the government; it is absolutely the people of Bangladesh calling on their government to be more accountable; it is up to the factory owners; it is up to the buyers and it absolutely is up to the consumers in Western countries.