72 hours in Dhaka - report on the ground from Bangladesh
Mathias Bolton writes:
"Recent tragedies in Bangladesh’s Garment sector have thrust this country into the international spotlight setting off a wave of activity around labour rights and worker safety. From the Parliament building to the fortress like headquarters of the manufacturers association (BGMEA) and from daily protests on the streets of Dhaka all the way to corporate boardrooms of the world’s most powerful retailers you can feel the winds of change blowing. The atmosphere is both encouraging and overwhelming.
We arrived in Bangladesh just as a one-day Hartal (general strike) began giving our joint delegation a proper introduction to the tempo of daily life in Dhaka. Our mission was to meet with all the key players in Bangladeshi society including garment unions, western brands, garment manufacturers, the ILO and the country’s Labour Minister. The goal was to try and get a handle on the rapidly changing situation and voice concern over the direction labour and safety reforms may be headed. Opportunity was also taken to answer questions on the recent ground-breaking Accord on fire and building safety that has been signed by more than 60 global retailers, UNI Global Union and IndustriALL.
Setting the context on the importance of the mission our first visit was to the Rana Plaza building collapse site where we had the chance to not only absorb the full weight of the disaster but also speak to local residents and family members who continue to hold vigil. The deadliest garment-factory accident in history caused 1127 deaths, injured over 2500 and has left hundreds of unaccounted bodies entombed within the debris at the disaster site.
It is not possible to stand amidst the rubble of Rana Plaza with the acrid dust of building debris burning your throat, seeing the traumatized faces of local residents and breathing in the unmistakeable smell of rotting flesh without reflecting on the human cost of cheap apparel. This is where the global race to the bottom leads; lost lives from preventable tragedies.
The site brought back painful memories of being at the World Trade Center site after 9-11; the scale of injuries and deaths, building debris everywhere, the smell of death and relatives wandering the area still in search of missing loved ones.
Conversations in the days to come revealed that this building collapse was not just another event in a string of recent tragedies in Bangladesh’s garment sector. It was clear from speaking to residents and various officials that after Rana Plaza both Bangladesh and the garment industry will never be the same.
Prospect of change however is causing both fear and optimism at all levels of Bangladeshi society. There is fear that what will change is that Bangladesh will lose its garment industry and the millions of jobs it has provided to a country that has struggled with poverty. A serious fear when considering the Garment sector is 80% of the country’s GDP. The optimism is that maybe this time will be different with the international focus and attention pushing the global industry to clean up its act rather than abandoning the Bangladeshi people.
Fear has been alleviated in part and optimism buoyed by the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord is not just a first for the garment industry but the first such type of agreement between multinationals and global unions that addresses supply chain issues.
Representatives from government, trade unions and the manufacturing sector we met with were most interested in the novel features of the Accord that represent a departure from previous attempts at addressing fire and building safety issues in Bangladesh. First global brands recognize that labor rights and worker empowerment are integral features of any safety program. Second, global brands are ultimately responsible for what happens in their supply chain and third global brands need to cooperate with global unions through a legally enforceable agreement to make this happen. Further, the Accord offers worker protections in the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions and guaranteed pay if a factory is temporarily closed for needed repairs.
While many global brands have chosen to take this high road approach and sign on to the Accord other powerful Western brands, primarily based in the United States, are doubling down on old methods that will ultimately destroy Bangladesh’s garment sector and take the race to the bottom to another country.
All roads lead to the powerful manufacturers association in Bangladesh, the BGMEA. They sit at the juncture between all global retail brands, the government, garment unions, manufacturers and global labour institutions. The weight of the choices and challenges before them are generating a considerable amount of tension within their association. Based on our meetings with them it is not clear they will have the strength to stand up to Wal-Mart and other low road retailers as well as their own past ways of doing business and make history the hard way by forging ahead on a new path.
These are the men and women who built the Bangaldesh garment industry from nothing in the late 1980’s to the global powerhouse that it is today. The most important message to them at this stage is that what got them here is not going to get them there. “There” being a safe, sustainable industry that provides decent work to the Bangaldeshi people and quality garments to the world’s retailers.
The Accord and labour law reform are not a panacea. Bangladesh and the garment industry are in the balance and can go in either direction. This time however we have a window of opportunity and a tool in the Accord to push history in the right direction.
Reflecting on the visit during the long flight home the enormous challenges ahead were racing through my mind but they were quickly dispelled by one revelation: If we succeed in Bangladesh we set the stage to transform the nature of precarious work and the garment sector globally."