The disastrous building collapse in Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka which has killed hundreds of ill-fated garment workers and wounded thousands, has finally shone some well-needed light into the murky business of global sweatshops.
Greed, profiteering, empire-building and a lack of transparency and morality underpin the rise of this industry.
Following the collapse of Rana Plaza in district of Savar, the European Union - the destination of 60% of Bangladeshi garments - is threatening to reconsider the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) extended to Bangladesh through which the country currently receives duty-free and quota-free access. The United States is also considering this action.
The Retail Council of Canada has also proposed new trade guidelines with Bangladesh in response to the disaster.
Locally, the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia has called for Australian companies such as David Jones, Kmart, Big W to disclose their own supply chains and that of their suppliers.
But there is much more that can be done to clean up this accident-ridden, exploitative industry.
With more than 5000 garments manufacturing factories, Bangladesh is the world’s second largest exporter of ready-made garments after China, earning US$20 billion annually and employing more than four million workers, 90% of whom are women.
But demand from the West for cheaper production and supply has prompted the rapid growth of industrial infrastructure of countries like Bangladesh without proper assessment, inspection and control processes.
Illegal and shoddy building design and lax safety standards are rife within the garments industry due to the complicity of corrupt engineers, officials and politicians.
Incidents of fire and collapses and appalling working conditions are commonplace. In November 2012, a fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, killed 112 people. In Chittagong in 23 February 2006, fire killed 83 garment workers - including girls aged between 12 and 14 years - at the KTS Textile Industries factory. Prior to cataclysmic Savar collapse, several hundred people had died in numerous incidents across Bangladesh.
In the just-collapsed Rana Plaza, the building was over-stressed with machinery and up to 500 people working on each of the five 6000 square feet levels.
The working conditions in these factories are, in most cases, horrible with lack of sufficient space, light and supply of drinking water. They are literally “death traps” with workers locked inside to prevent theft, leaving no way to escape disasters such as fire.
With an average wage of less than A$37 a month, the factory work is physically demanding and emotionally draining. Workers report physical and verbal harassment is rampant within the industry.
To achieve ruthless daily targets, workers may skip meals and work long hours. The emotional impact and stress level are extremely high among these poor workers.
Similarly appalling conditions are found throughout the industry, with similar complaints in countries including Pakistan, India, China, Cambodia, Honduras, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. In Pakistan, 289 people died in a fire in September last year at the Ali Enterprises Garment Factory in Karachi.
Following the Bangladeshi disaster, the Australian Fashion Council told consumers not to buy cheaper products made in sweatshops in developing countries including Bangladesh.
But this isn’t the answer. Firstly, the misconception about boycotting cheaper products needs to be clarified. Products such as smartphones, luxury fashion accessories including clothes and footwear are also produced in sweatshops.
Abandoning products from a specific country may simply move the trade to another country, without much needed reform.
Rather, it is important to pressure the government to become more responsive to demands by activists and consumers, to make the industry more transparent and accountable.
It is essential the Bangladeshi government revisits its regulatory regime and makes necessary amendments to include issues such as design and construction of factories together with ensuring working conditions consistent with the ILO (International Labour Organisation) Convention.
Also, creating better awareness among the factory owners and managers about the importance of these infrastructure and management issues, is critical.
Business has a much needed role to play here. US retailer Walmart has pledged to establish a training institute in Bangladesh to train factory owners, managers and workers about issues of worker conditions and safe infrastructure. British retailer Primark and Canadian firm Loblaw have both promised to compensate victims.
But major companies buying products from sweatshops need to be more careful and vigilant in ensuring a transparent and more humane process in manufacturing as well as supplying the products. Regular audits need to be done by these companies with respect to the factory infrastructure and individual wages and working condition including safety and health.
In addition, both the government and the foreign parent companies need to ensure that the factory owner does not situate the factory in a rented property without full control.
Finally, a network-based inclusive governance model needs to be developed with participation from all concerned, including foreign companies, local manufacturers, the government, and representatives of the worker unions, Non-government organisations and the ILO.
Without such arrangements in place, negative downstream impact will continue and similar devastating incidents will reoccur without any real improvement in industry practices and workers’ lives, livelihood and safety.