Cupidity. Cronyism. Corruption. These blend into a lethal Molotov Cocktail that if exploded, brings about pain, misery or death. There is enough empirical evidence accumulated to substantiate this premise. The unashamed misuse of power or callously exploiting access in the corridors of power, are black spots on governance, on accountability, and on humanity. One such gruesome and shocking symbol is the crumbling edifice known as Rana Plaza in Savar District, on the outskirts of the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka. It was home to a bank, apartments, five clothing factories and several shops. More than 3100 people earned their livelihood from there.
Bangladesh, after her emergence in the last days of 1971, became an icon of those states that are known as economic “basket cases”. The rallying cry in those days was to lift this nascent nation, shattered by annual cyclones, deeply embedded in poverty, devastated by civil war, and having a burgeoning population. The strategy was to immediately provide funds for sustenance and also to develop the country through a focused industrialization process.
That is when textiles entered into Bangladesh. Garments and knitwear provided massive employment, not only to men but also to womenfolk as well as children. Major global brands made a beeline to take advantage of the situation and succeeded in making the economy and survival of Bangladesh dependant on these global labels and retail chains. Everyone turned a blind eye to lack of occupational safety standards, low workers emoluments, flouting of labor laws, proliferation of child labor, and ruthless exploitation of money, political influence, and legislation.
Over the past few decades, Bangladesh textile industry flourished. Her decision makers played their cards pragmatically at international forums and this paved the way for the textile industry to enjoy the fruits of trade preferences and privileges. Coup d’état, political instability, natural calamities, riots, and the Battle of the Begums (Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed) for the coveted position of Prime Minister, did not discourage Western buyers from sourcing products from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh industrialists further took advantage by harping on the familiar tune that employment, especially for women, was essential if child labor was to be eliminated. They managed to keep wages under check. This was the “edge” that propelled this impoverished country to hit the $ 20 billion textiles export figure, second only to China. 80% of the country’s exports are textile-based. 25% of the total textile exports are destined for the US market.
The garment worker generally takes home less than $ 40 per month. It should be noted that after worker protests in 2010, wages were raised by 80%. This means that just 30 months ago, the wages were a shade over $ 20 per month. UN poverty threshold is $ 1 per day. This is the tragedy, and not only Bangladeshi industrialists but also global importers were equal partners in blatant exploitation of the workers, especially over three million women.
The modus operandi prevalent in Bangladesh garment units was to obtain maximum orders by quoting favorable prices that appealed to the international buyers. They have formidable support of the politicians who kept harping on the facade of Bangladesh being under-developed and in dire need of global support. Most of the orders were outsourced to sweatshops making the product cheaper. What is really pathetic is that disasters in Bangladeshi garment factories are nothing new. In November 2012, a garment factory caught fire and 112 workers perished. Since 2005, over 900 workers were killed and thousands injured due to tragic incidents such as fires and collapsed buildings, mainly due to poor working conditions and lack of safety procedures. The nexus between local manufacturers, global buyers, and politicians continued to downplay these disasters.
Will the Rana Plaza catastrophe be the catalyst of change in the garment industry? The first reaction came from the global labels that came out with statements that they would be revisiting their procurement policies. Wal-mart, J C Penney, Calvin Klein, H&M, Target, The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Tchibo, etc had in the past refused to fork out a few pennies more to improve the safety standards. Many of the labels openly refused to sign any programs to monitor safety and social standards in the factories. Even today, there is no consensus among the labels and the issue lingers on.
A lot of hype is created by quality assurance firms and independent inspection organizations. There is lot of hullaballoo about mega labels setting up Suppliers Code of Conduct, demanding ISO 9000 and ISO 14000, SA 8000, and other types of certification. They send their teams for on-spot inspection of the working environment and whether the supplier is conforming to the agreed upon conditionalities, procedures and safeguards. The Rana Plaza tragedy has blasted all these so-called certification and codes. It gives credence to oft-repeated objections and allegations that, in reality, most of these certification requirements are not essential and only add to the cost of the product.
What if this was not Rana Plaza of Dhaka and instead was Rana Plaza of SITE Karachi? Last year a well-established garment factory in SITE Karachi got engulfed in fire. 262 lives were lost. Workers Federations and social activists went ape while the hapless owners were put behind bars and a FIR under Section 302 was lodged against them. Human Rights organizations all around the world sharpened their knives against Pakistan. It seemed that Pakistani garments and knitwear would be boycotted. Of course, today, save one organization, all other representatives of workers and the social activists have gone to search for new issues. If it would have been a Rana Plaza, surely Pakistan would have been condemned and hung on a stake by everyone everywhere.
Today, representatives of garment associations etc are touting the claim that there would be a massive exodus by global labels from Bangladesh and soon substantial orders would be placed with Pakistani manufacturers. A clarion call has been given to garment units to prepare for the deluge of orders. This is nothing but utmost naiveté on the part of these business leaders. This isn’t going to happen as anticipated. The minimum monthly wage in Pakistan is $ 90 compared to less than $ 40 for the Bangladeshi worker. Pakistan does not enjoy GSP Plus trade preference (so far). Bangladesh does. The former suffers from a distorted and negative image. The latter still brandishes herself as a basket case. This works beautifully for Dhaka. Ergo, not much will happen in Pakistan.
Alas, the eight-storey Rana Plaza, where thousands came to earn their daily bread, which collapsed on April 24, 2013 resulting in the death of 1126 human beings, will always remain a testimony to unbridled greed, political influence, and outright sleaze. The dead would be debited in the Bangladesh corporate annals as well as in the records of mega global labels and retailers as ‘collateral damage’ and, once the debris of Rana Plaza is removed, then it would be time to place new orders and set up new sweatshops in buildings constructed on swamps. There may still be, after all, many Sohail Ranas among the owners of the 4500 plants still in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, for the owners of the global labels, a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. should serve as an eye-opener: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.