On 24 April 2013, Rana Plaza – an eight-storey complex containing several clothing factories – collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Some 1,135 garment workers died and over 2,500 were injured in the biggest disaster the Bangladeshi garment industry has ever seen.
The tragedy captured global attention with coverage routinely detailing the horrific working conditions employees were forced to endure, inspectors easily subverted by corruption and factories built on illegally occupied land.
What action has been taken to address these revelations of pervasive, entrenched corruption?
There needs to be recognition that the “made in Bangladesh” brand faces a threat if meaningful change does not occur. Various initiatives have been set up and legislation amended in the last year to protect the lives and livelihoods of millions of workers employed in a sector vital to the country’s economy.
Safety inspection in the spotlight
Transparency International Bangladesh research shows there are few mechanisms to ensure factory inspectors, owners and management are not bribed to overlook flaws in safety. It also reveals a lack of legally punitive measures against stakeholders who break the law. To move towards solving this, our local chapter is calling for a dedicated Garment Ministry to oversee all elements of factory safety inspection, and tougher punishment of factory owners who fail to comply with safety rules.
On 21 April, Transparency International Bangladesh issued a report on progress made in the last year. Although there have been some improvements, challenges of poor governance and corruption do persist.
Widespread bribery and lack of resources for safety inspectors mean factories remained open for business even when there were obvious structural weaknesses in the buildings. This is what happened on the day of the disaster: workers had feared going into the building after noticing cracks in the wall, but they were told to go inside anyway and business went on as usual at Rana Plaza.
When inspectors come to a field visit it is more expensive and it takes more time to get a schedule, but we need the certificates quickly, so we go to their office. It is cheaper and the inspectors are saved the trouble of coming here.”
– A Dhaka factory owner explains how to bypass a safety inspection
A Garment Ministry would centralise and limit the bureaucracy that comes from having to deal with multiple bodies and officials. This would simplify the process and create greater transparency that would reduce the opportunity for bribery, abuses of power and conflicts of interest.
Multinational companies need to go further
While the Rana Plaza disaster laid bare numerous infractions of labour rights and safety codes, it also shone the spotlight on a range of companies and multinational fashion houses – from Benetton and Mango to Primark and Walmart – that contract their clothing orders in textile factories where low wages yield higher margins.
In the wake of the disaster, the many initiatives multinational companies have signed up to include: the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, which legally commits the 150 signatories to transparent reporting and independent inspection; and the industry-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which aims to ensure the safety of workers and accountability for inspections. Through these efforts, 675 factories in Bangladesh have been inspected so far.
However, only a fraction of buyers have made contributions to the compensation fund, and except for a few symbolic disbursements of a paltry US$600 each, few have been made to date. There should be a greater sense of responsibility among both factory owners and brand companies about the rights of workers who are the main contributors to profits in the garments sector.
Multinationals need to go further and support broader reform to ensure that public inspections are effective and workers’ rights and welfare are protected. Firms must also be able to guarantee that their suppliers do not pay bribes to avoid safety or labour rules.
Bangladesh is not the only country in the global garment supply chain with a corruption problem. Six of the biggest textile- and clothing-exporting countries score 40 or less out of 100 on Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index, a warning of exactly the kind of corruption our research has uncovered in Bangladesh's garment sector.
Corruption Perceptions Index 2013: Major textile and clothing exporters
Global brands need to be a voice for better governance. Until now, the undue influence of the garment business on politics has been a barrier to reform. In Bangladesh, 10 per cent of parliamentarians are also factory owners. This political influence has been used to overrule safety inspectors who want to close an unsafe factory, and makes it difficult to pass measures aimed at improving the welfare, safety and rights of workers.
Garment factory workers in Bangladesh still often face dangerous working conditions, little power to hold employers to account and dismally low pay. In spite of a year of significant changes to remedy these injustices, more coordination between actors and stakeholders is needed for further visible improvements.
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