RSS
Is Bangladesh's deadly building collapse already leading to reform?
The government promises to hike the minimum wage and make it easier for garment workers to unionize
Workers at a garment factory streets away from the collapsed building in Dhaka protest dangerous working conditions on April 30.
Workers at a garment factory streets away from the collapsed building in Dhaka protest dangerous working conditions on April 30. AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
B

angladesh's government decided Monday to let garment workers unionize without their employers' permission. The reform is one of many the South Asian leaders have promised as they face a global outcry over factory conditions following the April collapse of an eight-story manufacturing complex, which killed more than 1,100 people. The government also said over the weekend that it would raise its minimum wage — which, at $37 per month, is among the lowest in the world. In another sign demands for reform are paying off, retailing giant H&M — the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh — agreed to sign a retailers' pact to help finance factory fire- and building-safety improvements.

That's a start, but not everyone has faith the Bangladeshi government will follow through with its pledge to improve the lives of the people who supply the labor for its $19 billion-a-year garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports. In addition to wages and unionization, the government temporarily shut 18 unsafe factories last week. It also vowed to inspect thousands more, and hire 200 occupational safety inspectors by year's end. Unfortunately, says The New York Times in an editorial, nothing the government has said or done so far guarantees conditions will improve.

Unfortunately, various Bangladeshi governments, including [current Prime Minister Sheikh] Hasina's, have repeatedly made and broken similar promises. The government has previously pledged to make it easier for workers to form unions. Yet Bangladesh, one of the largest garment suppliers to Europe and the United States, has admitted... that there are just 11 collective bargaining agreements. And organizing workers remains perilous, as the murder of a labor leader last year showed...

For one thing, the government has not agreed to make it illegal to fire employees who are trying to organize workers, a classic union-busting tactic. [New York Times]

Bangladesh certainly has a long way to go before satisfying the demands of local and global labor leaders. "Garment wages in Bangladesh are half of those in India or Cambodia, and a third of those in China," say Canadian union activists John Cartwright and Victor Gomes in the Toronto Star. "That's the only reason businesses have moved their operations there." And new laws are just part of the solution — the collapsed Rana Plaza complex, which was making inexpensive clothes for wealthy shoppers in the U.S. and Europe, was also plagued by the kind of safety violations that must be addressed to prevent such catastrophes.

We have heard of corrupt officials who conspire with the garment bosses to ignore safety rules. What about the 3,000-strong industrial police force whose main role is to suppress workers and strikes? If western retailers truly cared about the workers, they would require that these men spend their time enforcing safety standards and legal rights instead of keeping workers in the yoke of poverty.

If we truly care about the Bangladeshi workers and the families who have lost so much, we would use our immense purchasing power to empower them. [The Star]

Some worker advocates, however, are reminding critics of Bangladesh's government and clothing manufacturers that the factories have also done the country a lot of good. While one large foreign buyer, Disney, has even decided to pull out of Bangladesh, says Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus in Britain's Guardian, we can't forget that the garment industry has transformed the lives of the Bangladeshis, mostly women, who work in these factories, lifting them and their families out of abject poverty. "We cannot allow it to be destroyed," says Yunus:

Instead, Bangladeshis must be united as a nation to strengthen the garment industry, and foreign companies must play their part too.

I propose that foreign buyers jointly fix a minimum international wage for the industry. This might be about 50 cents an hour, twice the level typically found in Bangladesh. This minimum wage would be an integral part of reforming the industry, which would help to prevent future tragedies. We have to make international companies understand that while the workers are physically in Bangladesh, they are contributing their labor to the businesses: they are stakeholders. Physical separation should not be grounds to ignore the wellbeing of this labor...

After all this, will we just keep on watching as it keeps on happening, again and again? [The Guardian]

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week