Who Will Bell the Cat?
Guest Post by Fariha Sarawat
Much has been said about who’s to blame for the story state of garments workers’ rights, safety and working conditions in Bangladesh.
Some people, including some local manufacturers, would like us to buy in to the narrative of exploitative buyers whose predatory negotiations force our manufacturers to cut costs (because they are afraid they would lose the order otherwise to China or others) in order to stay competitive and that leaves the latter with little (once costs of inputs, overheads etc have been deducted) to pay to the workers. Barrister Moin Ghani wrote a fantastic piece explaining how the math of this just doesn’t add up. I’ve never met a poor, struggling-to-make-ends-meet manufacturer. Have you? I’ve met lots of garments workers who don’t even get paid a living wage. The RMG sector still remains a profitable sector for entrepreneurs. If the sector did not promise profit, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have close to 4000 factories in the country and an annual trade of 20 billion dollars.
But buyers are also culpable.
In 2011, at meeting between buyers, unions and activists in Dhaka, labour groups proposed a safety plan that would establish an ‘independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions.’ This would cost about $500,000/year, to the retailers/buyers. The buyers rejected this plan, with Wal-Mart saying it was not financially feasible. H&M believes that this should be the [financial] responsibility of the manufacturers and the government.
Do buyers have regulatory or legal responsibilities over manufacturers in Bangladesh? No. The Compliance Code and the auditing they enforce before sourcing a supply in developing countries like Bangladesh and its competitors in the region are not legally binding. To what extent and details buyers can monitor and enforce safety standards in over 4000 factories in a 20 billion dollar industry, without any support from a State that seems quite complacent with the status quo, is another question. In the case of the factories of Rana Plaza, should the buyers have sought to see the building permit for the complex and check if it’s compliant with our building code? Let’s also remember that Tazreen garments and two of the factories in the Rana Plaza had passed the standards of a major European group that does factory inspections in developing countries, because buyer’s compliance codes focus on labor issues, not building standards.
A friend argued, ‘ If a compliant factory says they can’t go lower because of their costs, when someone comes along and says I can do it for much less, surely they [buyer] should know his costs are lower, and this is because his factory is inferior.’ These low-operating-costs factories, with abysmal working conditions (at least by the conventional compliance code of buyers), usually take up the sub-contracted orders when compliant factories cannot complete the orders themselves (either because of efficiency issues or external factors like power shortage, strikes etc). No doubt that the buyers incite these bidding wars. But my point is, should such factories even be allowed to operate? Since they are often sub-contractors, they don’t have to comply. Who holds them accountable?
As mentioned, the compliance code is not legally binding in Bangladesh. A manufacturer is unlikely to face severe legal repercussions, like having his factory shut down, if s/he does not comply with buyer’s code. However, hypothetically, what if we did have our own legal compliance code? What if we had a legal framework to ensure that the culpability of garments factory owners in these deaths did not go unpunished?
With regards to workers’ safety, the responsibility of inspection lies with various State institutions, e.g., the Directorate of Labour, fire services etc. It’s really their job to ensure that factories operating within Bangladesh, using Bangladeshi labour, are operating with safety standards set out by our Labour Law. There are only about 85 inspectors in charge of implementing these standards and about 5,000 garments factories. According to this HRW press release, the Inspection Department, under Ministry of Labour, had just 18 inspectors and assistant inspectors to monitor an estimated 100,000 factories in Dhaka.
We know that Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, was advised to close the building down by an engineer. Now, it isn’t entirely clear if the engineer who checked the building was a government inspector or if he was actually ordered to close the establishment down, because the law says that the government inspector can order the shutdown of an establishment there appears to be imminent danger to human life or safety, according to Bangladesh labour law. Tazreen was certified as a compliant factory by Wal-Mart and it had fire exits. But the factory authorities had violated existing safety laws—they had blocked the exits with materials, some of which was flammable and closed the gates on the workers, preventing them from escaping sure death. This surely indicates that we are still unable to implement existing laws around safety standards in a way that protects workers interests. How else could Rana manage to build a 6 storey-complex without a valid building permit?
Truth is, Bangladesh is a hostile place for workers—including the 4 million employed by the 20 billion dollar industry. Buyers are fully aware of this fact. Manufacturers are even more aware because they are directly responsible for this hostility—labour groups have always questioned the immense political clout of the BGMEA, which has little influence over its members, let alone all manufacturers, aside from the utilisation certification given to these factories on the use of imported duty free inputs having bonded warehouse. So those who are not using duty free input (locally produced textile materials) are not liable to Association except loosing the membership. But ultimately, the State is to blame for the sorry state of workers’ rights. The State aids and abates this hostile environment by repeatedly siding with the interests of the manufacturers, instead of the workers—it has failed to punish a single manufacturer whose negligence and greed have resulted in death of workers. The State is responsible for failing to ensure that existing laws are implemented and standards are enforced—for this system of political patronage that allows a Sohel Rana to construct an unsafe building and factory owners to force workers to work in it with impunity. The State keeps reminding us how important this sector is but has failed to create a body that is responsible for the welfare of the workers whose sweat and blood keeps this sector strong. The State has failed the workers by not ensuring that they can form trade unions, because that would go against the manufacturers’ interests.