The search for bodies ended on May 14 at the Rana Plaza site, three weeks after the Bangladesh factory collapse. A poignant prayer service was offered on the wreckage where the Bangladesh army soldiers gave a silent farewell after finally ending an exhaustive search and rescue operation.
It has been a month of mourning for the families who lost their bread-earners in the tragedy, where more than 1,100 people died with several survivors losing their limbs to amputation during rescue.
In Canada, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in a Dhaka suburb on April 24, has brought on an intense scrutiny on workplace safety issues for retailers outsourcing their labour from offshore workers in countries like Bangladesh. Viewers watched the news in horror when labels of Joe Fresh — a Canadian clothing brand — were pictured on tattered garments, along with heartrending scenes of bodies being recovered from the Rana Plaza rubble.
Last year, when the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Baldia Town, Karachi caught fire, killing about 300 people, unsafe and prison-like conditions of workers locked within workplaces were exposed but little besides condolence messages and some monetary compensation was offered by the government of Pakistan and international businesses. But tragedies from Pakistan have usually elicited less attention than from elsewhere.
The Bangladesh factory incident has pushed companies like the Canadian giant, Loblaws — owner of the Joe Fresh garment chain made at Rana Plaza — to outline a factory safety accord in Bangladesh and take tangible steps that ensure such situations are not repeated. With cheap, outsourced labour being the key to their large profits, these companies have no choice but to do so. Despite the negative sentiment that has been focused on international clothiers and particularly on Loblaws, Galen G Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Cos. Ltd., stated soon after the tragedy that their Joe Fresh branch will continue to source in Bangladesh.
While these garment retailers may try and put safety checks in place, it is doubtful that they will ease off the pressure on offshore factories to keep their price points low.
According to the figures mentioned in a recent Toronto Star report on the globalisation of the garment industry, “Purchase orders found in the Rana Plaza rubble indicate the Spanish chain, Mango, was paying $4.45 (US) for the making of a shirt that it sold at its branded stores in Britain for $40 to $46. (The minimum wage for the lowest skilled in Bangladesh’s clothing industry is $38 a month. The average salary, according to business owners interviewed by Reuters, is $64 a month.).”
These exploitative figures come as no surprise. The profits are phenomenal for these companies and with businesses continuing to hire cheap labour, the middlemen — who own the local factories — would hardly be bothered about how the workers are treated.
In the case of Ali Enterprises, the factory was manufacturing products to be sold in Europe and the US and the business is said to have had a capital of between $10 million and $50 million but the workers were reportedly paid Rs5,000 to Rs10,000 a month. In the fire, almost all deaths were from suffocation as officials on the scene reported that all exit doors in the factory were locked and many of the windows of the factory were covered with iron bars when the fire broke out.
Though the international businesses are not directly responsible for the inhuman conditions that the labourers suffer, they are definitely culpable in promoting these inhumane conditions by their unconcern regarding the factors governing their supply chain. They put excessive work demands on factories like the Rana Plaza, where workers — mostly women in Bangladesh — are verbally abused or beaten into working harder and faster. As per The Star report, one factory alone in Bangladesh has been known to produce 500,000 shorts for H&M at one time.
For Pakistani products, the added humiliation is that not all brands agree to have the label, ‘Made in Pakistan’ affixed to the garment whereas ‘Made in Bangladesh’ is frequently seen on clothing from H&M, Old Navy, Tommy Hilfiger and other notable brands.
International clothing brands eager to protect their business interests are now signing on new fire and safety regulations. But the countries that supply the labour, too, should be implementing intelligent and lucrative policies to ensure their workers get due profits and the country gets due recognition in the industry.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2013.
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