Despite the collapse of Rana Plaza, which has been cited as the worst industrial accident recorded in the garment industry, factory life in Bangladesh goes on. The UK government has taken steps to support industry development in Bangladesh and promote supply chain transparency at home, but is it enough?
Backbone of the Bangladesh economy
Bangladesh’s garment industry employs over 4 million people (nearly three-quarters of whom are women) and helps to financially support a further estimated 25 million individuals. The industry has had a major impact on the country’s development and a Bangladesh clothing factory can also play a fundamental role in social change and female empowerment, providing poor and illiterate women with the opportunity to escape rural poverty and provide their children with an education.
Nevertheless, unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry have led to at least 2,000 deaths since 2005.Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director general of the International Labour Organization, is aware of the paradox. He told Bloomberg Businessweek: “This industry has allowed Bangladesh to cut poverty by a third…has created millions of jobs… has helped put more young girls in school than ever before. On the other hand, you can’t do that at the expense of women’s basic rights.”
How the UK is helping
Last September, Rana Plaza was raised in Parliament when Mrs Anne Main, Conservative MP for St Albans and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh, addressed Prime Minister David Cameron. She asked him to join her in encouraging UK businesses to “ensure that their trade [in garments] is ethical, and that other people are not being exploited for the benefit of our markets". Mr Cameron noted the importance of encouraging companies to “check their supply chains and establish where their produce is coming from.” But is the UK government making real changes, or just paying lip service?
The Department for International Development (DFID) functions to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty. Following the collapse of Rana Plaza, DFID has engaged with the government of Bangladesh as well as UK companies to encourage supply chain transparency and address human rights violations in the garment industry.
Through DFID, the UK is providing nearly £5 million to support the National Action Plan on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity. A further £1.8 million is being provided to the Trade and Global Value Chains Initiative to support partnerships between buyers, factory owners and local communities. In addition to this, the UK has launched an £18 million programme to improve private sector skills training in the garment and construction sectors. These projects aim to promote supply chain transparency throughout the garment sector in Bangladesh, demonstrating how improved working conditions can benefit productivity and urging UK buyers to seek ethically sourced clothing.
The collapse of Rana Plaza was hailed as a turning point for the Bangladeshi garment industry, but some observers are cynical about the nation’s government making long-term changes. Sara Hossain, a human rights lawyer in Dhaka,denies that the tragedy was ever “a wake-up call”, arguing instead that “this is like somebody sleeping in after the alarm has been ringing and ringing and ringing".
Transparency International estimates that 10% of the country’s members of parliament are directly involved in the garment sector, giving the industry a high degree of political influence. This leaves policy open to corruption and explains why labour laws are so poorly enforced.
With this in mind, in the future it may fall to the UK retailer to insist on ethically sourced clothing. Supply chain transparency may not be fully enforced by the Bangladeshi government, but buyer power can effectively raise production standards. The wider implications of Rana Plaza may be overlooked by domestic authorities, but if developed markets such as the UK demand that exports be ethically produced, the garment industry will have to change.
Originally published 28/05/2014