Death on the line

Posted: 14 December 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

BangladeshFactoryFire

Soon after I read about the latest fire in a Bangladeshi garment factory, I contacted John Pickles, who is the Phillips Distinguished Professor of International Studies and Chair of Geography at the University of North Carolina. John is currently involved in four different research efforts as part of the Global Apparel Project. I am pleased to publish his guest post here.

 

On 25 March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City resulted in the death of 146 garment workers. They died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or by jumping out of windows to avoid the flames inside. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the city’s history and one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Most of the victims were young immigrant women and the horror of the event mobilized workers and state officials to respond with new regulations and controls to protect the lives and livelihoods of workers.

Times haven’t changed much, but where such catastrophes take place certainly have. On 24 and 25 November, the nine-floor Tazreen Fashions factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh burned, killing 111 workers trapped inside, having been told to return to work despite the fire alarm. The factory employed about 1,500 workers making T-shirts, polo shirts, and fleece jackets for Tommy Hilfiger, the Gap, and Walmart among others. Media coverage of the event has been extensive and none more extensive that the 25 November New York Times coverage of the fire. In his report, Jim Yardley correctly points to a critical aspect of global value chains. The globalization of sourcing has resulted in arms-length contracting where buyers and suppliers are only indirectly connected through trading companies, a relationship in which responsibility for working conditions has been fragmented and weakened. As Yardley indicated, the factory contracted for orders through local middlemen, with the factory owner suggesting that: “We don’t know the buyers. The local man is important. The buyer — I don’t care.” Nor, it seems, do the buyers.

What the New York Times missed in its rush to detail the specifics of the factory tragedy and to try to assign responsibility was that the factory, which opened in 2010, is indicative of a broader shift in the global apparel industry. This shift has resulted in an extremely rapid expansion of contracting and production in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Pakistan. As factories that formerly produced for export closed down throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, in Bangladesh the potential gains from this growth have encouraged a largely unregulated industry-wide boom on an unprecedented scale, new factories have been built and existing ones expanded, and millions of workers have been drawn into sewing jobs.

In this boom-time, the 1979 Factories Rules Law and 2006 Bangladeshi Labor Law are not enforced, while factory owners are tripping over themselves to acquire expanded orders and meet the tight price and scheduling demands of their buyers, adding factory floor-space, machines, and operators without any local or state government oversight. As a consequence, between 1990 and 2012, there have been at least 33 major fires in Bangladeshi garment factories, and since 2005 more than 600 workers have died in garment factory fires. While many have gained access to jobs and wages not previously available, for many workers the consequence of export expansion has been disastrous.

Doug Miller at Northumbria University and the International Textile, Leather and Garment Workers Federation has recently documented this crisis in his new book Last Nightshift in Savar: The Story of the Spectrum Sweater Factory Collapse (McNidder and Grace, 2012). In it he shows how rapid growth led to unregulated factory extensions with tragic consequences in the collapse and fire at the Spectrum Sweater Factory in April 2005. (Readers can listen to Miller’s account of his book here and view his presentation here.)

cs%2006

The Spectrum collapse and fire resulted in the deaths of 62 clothing workers and injury to a further 84 workers, and it mobilized trade unionists and NGO activists concerned about the state of factory safety and the inadequacies of social protection in the Ready Made Garment industry in Bangladesh. In his book, Miller presents a detailed account of the national and international campaign efforts to make the owner and his multinational buyers responsible for the disaster and for the compensation and remediation that ought to follow.

Savar is not an isolated case. Fire, collapse, lock-in, injury, and death are an all-too-common aspect of the current export boom in Bangladesh and other low-wage countries in South and East Asia. In this Wild West boom in ready-made garments for export it is workers who pay the price.

But why has this spate of disasters emerged, why have buyers found Bangladesh so attractive, and how has this attraction led to such neglect of working conditions and safety? A key driver of expansion has been low wages which, despite increases in the minimum wage in 2006 and 2010, remain woefully behind rising living costs.

However, the main cause of this export boom has been preferential market access agreements. In many ways, Bangladesh is a model for a country benefitting from trade agreement-stimulated export growth. Through the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) since the early 1980s and from the Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative since 2001, Bangladeshi export production has expanded and the contribution of apparel exports to total exports has also risen year over year. Ready-made garments (RMG) mainly go to the U.S. and European Union (EU) markets. Together they absorb more than 90 per cent of Bangladeshi apparel exports; woven products to the United States, knit clothing to the EU.

Bangladesh’s apparel exports to the EU-15 and the US

exports

As a result, the number of apparel factories and the number of employed workers have increased year over year.

RMG

As the number of fires and deaths continues to remind us, the opportunities for profiting from such state investments in a booming export market continue to produce risk for workers. They will continue to do so until buyers themselves assume responsibility for their supply chains in both strategic and occasional supplier factories, until state regulators act on the protections already in place, and until trade agreements actually take into account the very conditions they generate.

Out of the New York City Triangle fire came the Factory Investigating Committee that recommended new labor laws, which created some of the most progressive labor reforms in the country, establishing rules governing ease of access, fireproofing, fire extinguishers, alarms, sprinklers, and extending to working conditions, toilet facilities, and the length of the working day.

To date, the Bangladeshi disasters have yet to have a similar effect on the consciences of local and national state officials. . .on the behavior of brands sourcing throughout South Asia that were so neglectful in monitoring their suppliers in their efforts to source at low cost. . .or on the conditionalities embedded in the trade agreements that stimulate such cavalier practices.

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