From factory fires to slave labour, the growth of mass manufacturing in Southeast Asia has not been problem-free, but after shedding its “sweatshop” reputation the region could have lessons for Bangladesh.
Last week's building collapse near Dhaka that left 550 dead or missing has unleashed global concern about conditions in the factories that produce fast fashion – cheap, catwalk-inspired clothes – for top global brands.
Amid talk of consumer boycotts, Bangladesh needs to reform its industry before fashionistas wonder “if they should be wearing bloodstained dresses”, Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity told AFP.
Communist Vietnam – which produces clothes for fashion industry giants Zara, Mango and H&M - shows it is possible to have strong labour laws, fair wages and a healthy garment industry, experts say.
“It is not a race to the bottom here,” Tara Rangarajan, programme manager of the International Labour Organisation's Better Work project in Vietnam, told AFP.
“Sweatshops are part of a short term, immediate payback, low-cost strategy. (Vietnam wants to) be competitive in the long term on something besides just cheap labour” so it is trying to enforce and improve its laws, she added.
Buyers are attracted to Vietnam – where wages are some three times higher than Bangladesh – if “they have reputations they are trying to maintain”, she added.
Conditions in factories have improved over the last decade and workers say they are now treated with more respect by employers – eager to retain trained staff – and receive perks such as free accommodation and meals as standard.
“When I started work the salary was $40 a month, now a good worker can earn $350-400 a month,” Nguyen Huu Linh, who has worked in a Vietnamese luggage factory for 18 years, told AFP.
“Technology has helped – we used to do so much manually but now we have machines,” added 36-year-old Linh, who started on the factory floor and is now a line manager at the Saigon Luggage Company.
Garment exports, worth $3.1bn in the first quarter of 2013, were up 18.3% year-on-year. The government's “number one priority” is boosting technology, Vietnamese legal expert Nguyen Dinh Huan told AFP.
In contrast, Bangladesh has “specialised in low-cost production” and embraced the sweatshop model rather than investing in technology and upgrading, said Nayla Ajaltouni, coordinator of the campaign group Collectif Ethique sur l'etiquette.
“The industry has grown very quickly, (which) is why we're seeing this concentration of chronic health and safety issues,” she told AFP.
Outrage over the recent building collapse could prove a turning point, she said. Minimum wages were increased in Bangladesh in 2011 “not for philanthropic reasons but because protests were starting to disturb the supply chain”.
“It is a bit cynical but this disaster is also a critical point where brands can be pushed to move forward – by the media, by citizens,” she added.
In Thailand standards in factories improved significantly after a fire at a toy factory killed 188 people in 1993, although activists say conditions particularly in smaller factories can still be problematic.
In Cambodia, where the garment industry developed in the 1990s, avoiding the “sweatshop” label was a conscious strategy, with the country embracing an ILO Better Factories programme - which union leaders say has only been minimally effective.
But Abdus Salam Murshedy, president of the Exporters Association of Bangladesh, said that Bangladesh “already has world-class factories... some buyers just avoid placing orders there to maximise their profits”.
The trouble is, “consumers are never really presented (with) the real relationship between cheap clothes and labour abuses and health and safety standards, because of marketing, branding,” said Anne Elizabeth Moore, an award-winning author.
“Buyers really aren't motivated to care about labour issues unless they're going for the altruism dollar, which is a long shot,” Moore, who has written extensively on the global garment industry, told AFP.
The recent accident in Bangladesh “is pressuring all companies, whether they were in that building or not, to tighten their supply chain - which is good”, said one Hong Kong-based manager with a global fashion brand on condition of anonymity.
“But ultimately buyers cannot go in and change the system in Bangladesh. (The government) needs to take responsibility,” the manager added, pointing out that unlike Vietnam, Dhaka neither imposes a standard annual minimum wage increase nor allows garment workers to unionise.
Unless standards improve, Dhaka should also realise that its cash-cow industry – which counts for some 80% of export earnings – is at risk, she said.
“A lot of buyers are looking into Myanmar, Kenya, Ethiopia. They don't see Bangladesh as a long-term hub any more... there are too many problems.”