Bangladesh disaster can be costly lesson
By Himaya Quasem
The hundreds who perished in Bangladesh's deadliest industrial disaster on April 24 were not just garment workers. A number were also young mothers, with mouths to feed. Perhaps it is here that the most poignant part of this tragedy lies.
Long after the images of the twisted metal, shattered concrete and rescuers clawing through the rubble with bare hands have faded from the world's memory, those orphaned children will be left with the gnawing ache that comes with losing the support of a parent. With the Bangladeshi garment industry providing jobs for
countless women in a male-dominated culture, the family breadwinner may well be the mother.
The collapse in the outskirts of Dhaka of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building, which killed more than 400 garment workers, cuts to the heart of a pressing modern question: do multinationals help or exploit the developing countries with which they trade? In Bangladesh, where almost half the population live on less than US$1 a day, the answer is both. Western companies supplied by factories in the building include Benneton group, The Children's Place and a unit of Associated British Foods.
In the past three decades, the industry - which accounts for almost 80% of the South Asian nation's exports - has lifted millions out of poverty and given women in the Muslim-majority country a level of economic and social empowerment of which their mothers could only dream.
But as last week's disaster shows, progress has come at a price. The booming US$20 billion sector has been tarnished by the blood of hundreds of workers who needlessly perished because factory owners failed to put their safety first.
Yet high-profile disasters such as the Rana Plaza collapse show that protecting workers' safety is not a luxury or an optional humanitarian extra, but essential to the survival of this industry.
Powerful global brands have been flocking to Bangladesh because of its low labor costs and ability to churn out bulk orders. If the country experiences more headline-grabbing industrial disasters, then global retailers, weary of bad publicity, could start to think about taking their business elsewhere, said Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, a senior research fellow at the Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue think tank.
While any shift away from Bangladesh won't happen overnight, the brutal reality of global capitalism means that multinationals are not duty bound to stick with any one country. That's why it is up to the nation's factory owners to safeguard the reputation of the "Made in Bangladesh" tag - because they have the most to lose.
For the owners of Bangladesh's network of 5,000 factories to change this culture of indifference toward safety, they need to start viewing their workers as assets rather than as cheap, dispensable commodities. About half of Bangladesh’s garment factories don't meet legal work-safety standards, Bloomberg reported this week, quoting Kalpona Akter, executive director of the non-governmental organization the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
Most of the 4 million people employed in the country's garment sector are women, who are highly motivated to work hard and earn a living to help improve their lot. But although the industry has been growing steadily over the past 30 years, making it one of the biggest garment exporters in the world, progress on getting female staff to move up the career ladder and take up leadership roles has been slow.
Bangladesh's garment sector should also start to look for ways to compete other than simply on the basis of low cost. Efforts should be made to move up the value chain, to produce more expensive, mid-range clothes, where margins are fatter, said Dr Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, associate economics professor at Yale University.
This will require better staff training and mean that Bangladesh can start to benefit from the spoils of globalization, rather than remain hostage to the exploitative framework that makes it a top destination for brands simply because it is cheap.
So far, many of the improvements in Bangladeshi garment workers' rights, such as a reduction in child labor, have come about because of pressure from the western buyers, said Dr Khondaker.
On Wednesday, the European Union said it was considering taking steps to help improve conditions in Bangladeshi factories. Rather than waiting to be harangued by multinationals or foreign governments, Bangladesh's factory owners - who wield a high degree of political influence - should start to take steps to improve safety of their own accord.
In a country where people are abundant but land is scarce, factories have expanded skywards, said Dr Khondaker, sometimes upon ground that is unstable. Although upgrading electrical wiring and bolstering the structural integrity of factories will be costly, a simple change in the attitude of their bosses would have been enough to save lives.
Bloomberg News this week reported that "the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring group, estimates that it would cost $600,000 on average to elevate each of the country’s 5,000 factories to Western safety standards, for a total of $3 billion. If the $3 billion were spread over five years, it would add less than 10 cents to the factory price of each of the 7 billion garments that Bangladesh sells each year to Western brands. If the factory owner passed on that cost to the retailer and the retailer passed it on to the consumer, with markups, this could mean, perhaps, a 25-cent increase for the final buyer per item." 
Yet Rana Plaza would not be the mass concrete grave it is today if employers had not forced workers to return to the building even after it deemed it unstable when cracks in the walls were spotted the day before the disaster.
Last November, 112 garment workers died after a fire broke out at the Tazreen factory, on the outskirts of Dhaka. Those deaths could have been avoided if the exits to the plant had not be locked and if supervisors had not ordered workers to ignore the fire alarm and return to their stations.
"It doesn't even have to cost money; it's about shifting the priority of managers and staff in those factories so that when there is a risk those staff are evacuated safely," said Gareth Price-Jones, country director in Bangladesh for British-based non-governmental organization Oxfam.
The arrest of Rana Plaza owner Mohammad Sohel Rana and subsequent calls from angry protesters for him to be executed could prompt other business owners to think twice before heartlessly ignoring safety warnings. Several executives of companies linked to factories in the building have also been arrested.
The global demand for cheap clothes has provided an economic lifeline to an impoverished nation. It has also promoted a surge in the number of unsafe factories.
Consumers and Western retailers have a moral duty to push for workers' conditions to improve. Bangladesh's factory owners also have an economic incentive for doing so.
These owners, who sit at the heart of the nation's garment sector, should not forget the importance of their army of low-paid, mostly female, workers whose industriousness is one of the factors that attracted the global brands in the first place.
Otherwise, the nation risks squandering the chance to harness the opportunities that globalization brings.