112 workers - many of them women – perished in a fire in a Bangladesh clothing factory in the evening of 24 November. This latest tragic event at a subcontractor of major Western clothing brands casts doubt on whether any real improvement in safety and working conditions is possible in a country whose economic engine is an industry riddled by cut-price labour conditions.
The NGO Clean Clothes Campaign reports that at least 500 garment workers have died in fires in Bangladesh since 2006. Will this fresh horror story now halt the rising death toll? It would not be a safe bet. The unscathed designer brand manufacturers rushed to issue their conventional messages of sympathy with the bereaved families and steer inquiries towards their codes of conduct and "social responsibility" programmes.
C&A’s website reports that its Head of Sustainable Business Development is flying to Bangladesh, and confesses that the retail chain ordered around 220,000 sweaters from the manufacturer Tazreen Fashions for delivery to its Brazilian stores between December 2012 and February 2013. When orders that size have to be filled in usually very short lead times, questions must arise about whether business requirements and improved safety and working conditions can be bedfellows.
Walmart has admitted that the factory was still producing clothing lines for its stores even though no longer an authorized supplier since being classified as "high risk" by a certification body for the leading U.S. retailer. Walmart simply points the finger at its supplier for having "secretly" outsourced the work to Tazreen Fashions.
Bangladesh has over 4,000 garment companies employing more than three million workers, more than 80% of them women. In 2011, it was the second world exporter of clothing after China, with a total of $19 billion. Textiles account for 80% of the country's exports and are by far the main source of foreign exchange that the government uses to buy in oil to meet the needs of this country of 150 million people.
Textile manufacturers are an extremely powerful lobby whose network of influence extends up to parliament. "One in ten MPs either personally or through his family owns a textile factory”, claimed one NGO representative interviewed by the Le Monde newspaper. To encourage foreign firms to invest further in the textile sector, trade unions have been outlawed in the garment industry, even though union membership is legal in other sectors of the economy.
It therefore comes as little surprise just three days after the tragedy to find the government explaining the fire away as arson. "We have come to the conclusion that it was an act of sabotage", said the Home Affairs Minister.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told garment factory owners "you should pay a little more attention" to safety when opening the Texbangla-2012 fair on 27 November organized by ... the Bangladesh Textiles Mills Association.
Sources: AFP, Associated Press, The New York Times, The Guardian, bdnews24.com, Le Monde.
Jeremy Hague,Lynn Oxborrow and Lynn McAtamney (Centre for Work and Technology, Nottingham Trent University)