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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Buyers are culpable too

Update : 28 Apr 2013, 06:04 PM

Much has been said about who’s to blame for the sorry state of garment 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 otherwise lose the order 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 5000 factories in the country and an annual trade of 20 billion dollars.

But buyers are also culpable.

In 2011, at a 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 have cost about $500,000/year to the retailers/buyers. The buyers rejected this plan, with Walmart saying it was not financially feasible. H&M said it believed that this should be the [financial] resposibility of the manufacturers and the government.

To my knowledge, there has been no discussion about all three parties sharing the financial responsibility and the state taking up the administrative role.

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 buyers are able to monitor and enforce safety standards in over 5000 factories in a $20bn 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 to check if it was 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 the buyer’s compliance code focus on labour issues, not building standards.

A friend argued: “If a compliant factory says they can’t go lower [price] 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-cost 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 such as power shortages, strikes, etc).

There is 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/her 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 actions of garment factory owners leading to these deaths did not go unpunished?

With regards to worker safety, the responsibility of inspection lies with various state institutions, eg 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 laws. There are only about 85 inspectors in charge of implementing these standards and about 5,000 garments factories.

According to a HRW press release, the Inspection Department, under the Ministry of Labour, has 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 if there appears to be imminent danger to human life or safety, according to Bangladeshi labour law.

Tazreen was certified as a compliant factory by Walmart and it had fire exits. But the factory authorities had violated existing safety laws — they had blocked the exits with materials, some of which were flammable, and closed the gates on the workers, preventing them from escaping sure death.

This indicates that we are still unable to implement existing laws with regard to safety standards in a way that protects workers’ interests.

How else could Rana manage to build a 8-storey building without a valid permit? Imagine if we had an independent, well-resourced, autonomous body, whose job it was to inspect factories and ensure that they met all labour and safety standards. Imagine the difference that would make.

Truth is, Bangladesh is a hostile place for workers — including the 4m employed by the $20bn garment 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 certification given to these factories on the use of imported duty free inputs. So those who are not using duty free input (locally produced textile materials) are not liable to BGMEA, except for potential loss of membership.

But ultimately, the state is to blame for the sorry state of worker 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 the death of workers.

The state is responsible because it is the state that has failed to ensure that existing laws are implemented and standards are enforced — it is responsible 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.

An abbreviated version of this article was published at alalodulal.org.

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