Last month was the three year anniversary of the collapse of the eight story Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh, where 1,130 garment workers were killed as they began their day at work. It was the worst industrial disaster of the 21st century. As we reflect three years later, it is a solemn yet important time to remember the sacrifice that so many people made, and continue to make, in the course of producing our clothes. Of course, that such a sacrifice would ever be made in the name of producing clothes seems perverse. Perhaps Rana Plaza was ‘just a freak accident’? Or perhaps Bangladesh just isn’t very good at making its buildings safe? Maybe such events will help to highlight the issue and force the authorities and the factory owners into action? Surely workers will demand and secure change?
Unfortunately the facts deny such convenient logic. Prior to the Rana Plaza disaster an estimated 579 Bangladeshi garment workers had been killed in 217 fires and other incidents at factories since 2006. In November 2012, just six months before the Rana Plaza collapse, 100 workers were killed in a fire at a garment factory on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Around 600 workers were injured in the two months following this fire alone. The number of fatal occupational injuries in Bangladesh increased from 1.25 per 10,000 workers in 2003 to 1.74 per 10,000 in 2011 according to the International Labour Office. By comparison, the fatality rate in the UK during the 2011-12 year was 0.06 deaths per 10,000 workers.
As I explore the regularity, consistency and persistence of these tragedies there is an unstoppable realisation that ‘chance’ and ‘carelessness’ do not offer a full explanation. Something else is going on here. According to a report published jointly by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), these incidents reflect “systematic flaws” in the Bangladeshi garment industry, tied to local repression of workers’ rights and the international pressures of a competitive global market. The report claims that a lack of workers’ control over their employment conditions has combined with the desire of corporations to find low cost production. This, along with inadequate government regulation creates an environment which is conducive to yielding tragedies of this nature.
Put simply, everything in the international system of garment production is set up for us to walk down Oxford Street (for my fellow Londoners) and to hand over some money in exchange for a pair of jeans. The only thing that matters is for the wheels of the system to keep turning. Jeans are stitched. Jeans are shipped. Jeans are marketed. Jeans are bought. Jeans are worn.
The problem with this, and the inconvenient truth behind Rana Plaza, is that workers’ rights and factory safety are not necessarily pre-requisites for the wheels to turn. Take the example of the hundreds of workers who arrived for work on the morning of 24 April 2013 – the day that the Rana Plaza building collapsed. Many of the workers were aware of structural problems with the building due to a newspaper report several days before the collapse. They arrived for work despite the well documented pattern of injury and death within the Bangladesh garment industry. They did so in the hope of earning around $1.22, which was the approximate minimum wage (per day) for the garment sector at the time. In London you’d be lucky if $1.22 would buy you enough denim to avoid arrest for indecent exposure, but in Bangladesh in 2013 it was the average daily expenditure for about 40% of the population. Almost 80% of the population was living on less than $2 a day. Choice is no substitute for compulsion.
But regardless of the issue of pay, why was there ever any danger at Rana Plaza? Why couldn’t those 1,130 people have arrived to work for their $1.22 without any doubt that they might return home again?
A key failing in the Bangladeshi garment industry is the lack of proper social auditing, the primary mechanism by which conditions in factories are monitored. The SOMO and CCC report highlights several key reasons for the failure of social audits, including: exclusion of workers and independent organisations from the process, lack of opportunity for workers to speak out, poor technical knowledge of auditors, and other inadequacies. A lack of transparency surrounding social audits restricts workers, government and other groups from taking action – and means that even if a factory is found to be deficient the report is not shared widely and so it is unlikely to cause any significant change in practice. The government’s involvement in social audits is also inadequate. According to the International Labour Organization the number of government labour inspections in Bangladesh increased from 78 in 2006 to 93 in 2010. However, the number of garment factories grew from 4,490 to 5,150 over the same period – showing that the vast majority escape without government inspection.
In Bangladesh social protection for workers comes second to the main objective: making and selling clothes. In a country where most people live on less than $2 a day, loosing $1.22 in wages would be catastrophic. Because workers have no choice but to turn up for work, regardless of the conditions in the factory, and little power to demand decent conditions, an unsafe factory won’t stop jeans from being made. Safety is not a pre-requisite for cheap denim to flow.
These tragedies aren’t about ‘chance’ or ‘carelessness’. They’re signs of the system operating normally. The market is expected to regulate itself. If workers’ don’t like the conditions in factories, then they are expected to withdraw their labour. Except that they don’t have the luxury of choice. For Bangladeshi garment workers the consequences of not earning their $1.22 are so severe that they must literally risk their lives to make our jeans. Three years ago 1,130 workers died making jeans that were bound for London and New York, simply because they didn’t have another choice. Somehow in the mass experiment of free market capitalism we have turned our own labour, our own being, into a commodity to be bought and sold for profit – and we’ve allowed the market to determine our social fate.
It might be possible for economic prosperity to provide enough freedom to Bangladeshi garment workers that they are no longer compelled to work in an environment with such poor social protection (as, some have argued, was the case for child labour in Britain and France). Alternatively, through collective action workers might succeed in forcing a change. Sadly, either of these scenarios would mean working against the tide of a system which inherently seeks low safety standards for garment workers – on the basis of lowering production costs – and has no fundamental inclination towards such social protection at its core.