Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Year Later, Has Bangladesh Learned its Lesson?

A year ago today, the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. The eight-story garment factory had seemed unstable the morning of April 24, 2013 to many workers standing outside it, where a large crack was visible. However, the workers, who are typically paid wages that make the most paltry incomes in America seem enormous, knew that if they did not head inside to work they would be fired. We all know what happened next - the factory collapse that day was the worst in modern history, killing 1,129 people and injuring over 2,000 more. The tragedy shed light on the abominable workplace conditions in Bangladesh, and within months there was a pledge of $40 million to compensate victims and their families, as well as two separate coalitions - one comprised of European clothing companies, the other their American counterparts - that vowed to increase regulation and inspections of the factories they source their clothing from.

Yet here we are, a year later, and it's hard to be optimistic about the change that has occurred. Out of the $40 million that was initially pledged to victims and their families, approximately $15 million was actually raised and disbursed. The advocacy group Clean Clothes Campaign noted that collectively, the 29 clothing brands that had ties to the Rana Plaza were being asked to contribute just 0.2% of the $22 billion they bring in annually - and still that has yet to come to fruition.

In addition, despite increased efforts to inspect some of the factories in Bangladesh (which I do not disparage - the efforts on the parts of major international clothing brands should be applauded), there are an estimated 2,000 factories that remain entirely outside of the government regulatory sphere in the country. To make matters more complicated, garment factories throughout the country frequently take on more work than they can finish on their own, resulting in a major subcontracting market that faces virtually zero scrutiny. This makes the industry as a whole incredibly opaque, and undermines the efforts that are currently being taken to improve the workplace conditions.

The problem with Bangladesh's garment industry is more complicated than simply improving certain factories, and will take a much broader, deeply-rooted approach to correct. In 2013, the garment industry accounted for 80% of exports for the country, and brought in approximately $21 billion in revenue, or 18% of overall GDP. To suggest that the garment industry is the backbone of Bangladesh would be an understatement. And to assume that the government is going to openly embrace reforms that will likely be costly to implement and maintain is shortsighted. While horrific tragedies such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza last year are mourned throughout the country, Bangladesh is quick to get back on its feet thanks to the stark reminder that without the same level of productive output in garment manufacturing, the country as a whole suffers.

Consumers (such as myself) and retailers are to blame perhaps even more than the Bangladeshi government. For decades, ever since mass manufacturing began moving overseas, we have witnessed what is called the "race to the bottom", where countries compete for business by lowering their standards and, as a result, the cost of doing business with them. Well, when a factory collapse kills over 1,000 people and injures twice as many, it's safe to say we have reached the bottom. While regulation and factory inspections are an important first step in improving the day to day conditions in many of these factories, clothing companies need to change their philosophy entirely, and begin the race to the top again. As consumers, perhaps the cost of our clothing goes up temporarily, but I would bet that governments around the world begin to attract manufacturing to their countries by offering subsidies to keep the cost down. This way, it's no longer a zero-sum game; everyone benefits.

A year later it is hard to forget the headlines day after day as the death toll climbed from a few hundred to over one thousand. And it absolutely should have forced us to confront the quality of the workers in a country such as Bangladesh, who sew our clothing together for pennies while we spend small fortunes to purchase the finished product and the company pockets the difference. But it is important to keep moving forward, to refuse to be satisfied with the progress and the results, and to hope that we can turn things around and ensure that never again does a colossal garment factory collapse, causing thousands of casualties.

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