The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last year with the loss of 1,138 lives is having far-reaching consequences. The building housed garment manufacturers, some of them making clothes for Western brands including Primark and Marks and Spencer. The outcry that followed led to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which in turn, has led to the forced closure of garment factories across the country. Now factory owners are threatening to take legal action, saying they cannot afford to bear the costs of paying staff while the factories are closed and repair work is carried out. Hundreds of factories are being inspected every month, with some being completely or partially forced to close.
The Rana Plaza tragedy highlighted the fact that outsourcing manufacturing by international brands to drive down costs has unforeseen consequences. Countries like Bangladesh, which is heavily reliant on the garment industry as a mainstay of its economy, do not have the same regulatory background or safety culture as the countries and companies that come to its doors seeking to make clothing. Building standards and working conditions differ greatly from those in the West. Attempting, as now, to retroactively bring order to unregulated chaos was always going to be a challenge. Some of the brands such as Walmart and Gap have set up funds to cover workers pay while the work is carried out to make their job environment safer — but many have not.
Pakistan also manufactures cotton goods, and also has a very poor record of workplace safety. Our cotton manufacturing industry has largely collapsed because of the ongoing power crisis, with many factory owners relocating abroad — some of them to Bangladesh. If it is ever to be revived, it would be wise to learn from the Bangladesh experience and ensure that manufacturing units are compliant with international standards of health and safety. The Baldia fire in 2012 killed 289 people, nothing like it must ever happen again.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2014.
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