Bangladesh garment workers: How can we prevent another disaster?

The garment industry is a large employer of women in Bangladesh, but events like the Rana Plaza factory collapse show that many work in unsafe conditions

The situation facing garment workers in Bangladesh may feel like it has hit crisis point, but the horrifying truth is many more disasters are waiting to happen unless urgent action is taken.

Over a month ago, more than 1,000 people died when the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory building near Dhaka collapsed on 24 April. While just days later a fire in a garment factory building in another part of the capital killed eight people, including its owner, a senior police officer and a local politician.

And yet the potential for this crisis to unravel yet further seems inevitable when you look at the number of hazards facing the city of Dhaka and the vulnerable, largely female workforce who work and day and night in its factories, to make the clothes sold on high streets throughout the world.

Buildings standards lacking

Bangladesh is urbanising rapidly, around 35,000 people move to urban areas every week and almost no buildings conform to building codes, (which were weak to begin with). The Prime Minister herself has confirmed that 90 percent of buildings do not conform to building codes.

Vulnerable to earthquakes

Dhaka is sited on two fault lines and is vulnerable to earthquakes – it has experienced several small earthquakes over the last three years. Rescue efforts at the Rana Plaza site were hampered by the presence of thousands of bystanders, with little control taken on the site of the disaster. Given the inadequacies of the current response, and the combined threat of the fault lines and thousands of highly populated structurally unstable buildings throughout the city, the potential for catastrophe seems inevitable should a major earthquake strike.

The recent events are symbolic of a systemic failure where all actors need to be held accountable and take action for things to change. Pressure is needed to make this change happen.

Large international brands

CARE is part of that pressure, but NGOs alone are by no means the solution. CARE Bangladesh partners with a number of large international brands including GAP and Walmart to provide skills development and training for women, to engage with the HR of factories and to empower communities to strengthen worker’s representation and organisations so that they can no longer be kept as the silent, expendable resource base , but become a vocal part of a thriving industry.. We want these companies (and others) not to see this as a PR-worthy CSR initiative, but to make these programmes part of ‘business as normal’ and to ensure a sustainable supply chain. These programmes have resulted in positive outcomes for women and increased efficiency for these factories.

Many have questioned how we can work with the garment industry given the mistreatment and risks facing the workers on a daily basis. Some of these concerns are well founded, as many international firms sourcing form Bangladesh do not do enough to ensure fair workplace conditions or safety standards in their sourcing factories and often turn a blind eye to subcontracting practices. CARE Bangladesh uses this work as an entry point to bring attention to the real issues facing women in factories on a daily basis, and advocate for change in the supply chain that will lead to better outcomes for women and workers

We use these partnerships to highlight the benefits to the factories themselves that can result from having a skilled and empowered workforce, as well as improve working conditions and options for women employees.

However, these hard fought gains can disappear in a moment when basic worker rights (which include rudimentary safety and security) under law are not ensured by government and blatantly disregarded by many factories within the industry as evidenced tragically in this event.

Speaking to workers

In the tragic incident at Rana Plaza in Savar, workers were ordered back to work despite the significant risks posed to their safety. Workers are often reluctant to speak up about their concerns for fear of losing their jobs. As the discussion builds as to how to prevent further tragic loss of life it is clear that there is no way to ensure factory compliance with safety standards without speaking to workers themselves.

This tragedy has created a great deal of fear among workers within the garment industry - fear of losing their jobs and fear of losing their lives when they next go to work. The garment industry remains one of the largest employment sectors in Bangladesh, particularly for women, who are less skilled and migrate away from rural poverty to seek employment for a better life, greater choices, dignity and freedom.

Women’s participation in the garment industry has been a significant turning point in the country’s history, marking the increased participation of women in the formal economy and changing women’s mobility and ability to engage in decisions affecting their lives. The potential of the garment industry to continue to provide employment for large numbers of women in the country provides great opportunity but comes with huge challenges for the industry that employs some 3 million people in Bangladesh and represents 79% of export earnings.

Recommendations to the garment industry

International efforts to address the problem are happening rapidly and changing on a daily basis, but what action is needed and how do we move forward in the short and long term?

  • Provide sufficient compensation to all those injured in the collapse and support for rehabilitation. In addition, the families of those killed in the incident should be given adequate payments to support them over a longer-term, particularly as they have often lost their only source of income.
  • Streamline garment factory safety approvals through clearly identified government departments that are properly staffed and resourced to ensure quality regulation and accountability - so as to remove blame shifting and create a clear chain of responsibility. Ensure those responsible are charged and given the appropriate legal sanction - to end the culture of impunity.  Ensure that legislation is actually implemented – for example, we know that while fire exits may exist, they often remain locked.
  • Strengthen worker’s representation and organisations so that they can no longer be kept as the silent expendable resource base of a thriving industry.
  • Urge international buyers to have stringent compliance procedures and be accountable for their supply chain in a way that goes deeper than current methods and avoid them being corrupted themselves. This event highlights the gaps in the auditing procedures and more must be done for these to be genuine. Worker’s voices should be heard during audits in order to ensure accuracy of reports

Reduce reputational threat

Bangladesh competes mainly on the basis of cheap labour and the purchasing practices of international firms facilitate this. The buyer-manufacturer relationship does not allow for long-term approaches that could facilitate capital to invest in both factory upgrades or in workers skill-training (and empowerment). With long-term investments, including multi-year contracts with substantial orders, international brands could reduce the reputational threat to their brands by no longer constantly shifting to unknown and unsafe manufacturers.

Change has to come from the buyers, manufacturers, regulatory authorities, governmental and international stakeholders in the supply chain and workers partnering to better the industry. The garment sector is important to the future of Bangladesh and the sustainable livelihoods of millions of women. There is a mutual responsibility of all stakeholders in the garment industry to ensure that no woman or man dies whilst trying to make a living.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.