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2 May 2013

Bangladesh factory collapse - The facts and what's being done so far

Contributor Sarah Ditty

Bangladesh survivor

SOURCE reviews all the press surrounding Wednesday's factory collapse disaster in Bangladesh. We take a look at the facts, trying to get to the bottom of how it happened, what's being done now and what organisations are demanding to be done going forward - including our own Value Chain Call to Action. Image credit: Associated Press

SOURCE has launched an industry Call to Action to build a constructive response to this disaster: Click here, and take 3 minutes to register your support or ideas, by 3rd May 2013.

The death toll of Wednesday’s tragic factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh has reached 382 victims with about 2,500 survivors being accounted for, making it the worst disaster in Bangladesh’s garment production history. Hundreds of workers and civilians have taken to the streets in anger against appalling working conditions in garment factories.

The building employed 3,122 workers in total, but it’s uncertain how many were in the building at the time of the collapse. It has been reported that rescue workers will now give up searching for more survivors.

Four owners of three factories have been arrested along with the owner of the Rana Plaza building and the Bangaldesh High Court has frozen the bank accounts of all the owners of the five factories operating in the building, reports CBC News.

In a bold industry move – one that hopefully will set a precedent – Primark has just announced in the last hour that they will compensate victims following on demands made by campaigning organisations such as War on Want and the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh.

Primark has said that the payment would include financial aid to those who were injured as well as long-term aid for the families of those that were killed. The retailer has also urged other clothing retailers to come forward, take responsibility and provide assistance to those affected.

Canadian retailer Loblaw’s, which owns brand Joe Fresh, has now followed suit by admitting responsibility and agreeing to compensate the families of victims, now and in the future.

For more on what organisations are calling on companies and the government of Bangladesh to do in response to the disaster, read below.

The garment manufacturing sector in Bangladesh – at a glance

According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), garments account for about 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export economy. In 2011 apparel, including woven and knit garments as well as home textiles, accounted for 78 percent of a total $23 billion in exports from Bangladesh, with most finished products being sold to companies in the U.S.

Baltimore Examiner contributor Larry Luxner, reported in December 2012 that wages for Bangladeshi garment workers remain the lowest in the world, with workers paid just $37 a month, “as factories seek to minimise costs to meet the price demands of the global apparel brands.” Workers’ wages only reached this level following a series of violent protests in 2010 and were raised from $21 per month previously.

Suvashish Bose, vice-chairman of the government-run Export Promotion Bureau, told the Baltimore Examiner that: “Bangladesh has about 5,000 garment factories employing about 3.6 million workers, 80 percent of them women. They are submissive, adaptable and trainable. They can understand everything very quickly, and these workers are abundantly available wherever you want to set up your factory.”

Leading organisations call for companies to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement

In 2010, the International Labor Rights Forum drafted the first Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which according to the Associated Press was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers — including Wal-Mart, Gap and H&M — but was rejected by the companies largely because it would be legally binding and costly.

The BFSA proposal was updated and presented to major retailers again in November 2012 amid a series of deadly fires in garment factories in Dhaka and surrounding areas – only the PVH Corp, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and German retailer Tchibo have signed it.

Compliance is simply not working.

AP reported that a spokesperson for the Gap Group said the company turned down the proposal because it did not want to be vulnerable to lawsuits and did not want to pay factories more money to help with safety upgrades.

H&M also did not sign on to the proposal because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be taking on the responsibility, Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues, told the Associated Press in December.

At the time, Wal-Mart’s representative told the meeting it was “not financially feasible … to make such investments,” according to minutes of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

The International Labor Rights Forum, the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label and War on Want have put out a renewed calling for all brands and companies to sign up to and implement the legally binding Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement in response to Wednesday’s Rana Plaza factory collapse.

CNC News describes how the BFSA would essentially “ditch government inspections, which are infrequent and easily subverted by corruption, and establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions. The inspections would be funded by contributions from the companies of up to $500,000 per year.”

Others call for better implementation of existing health & safety legislation

Comprehensive local laws on the security of buildings exist but are not properly implemented, says the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), who were responsible for annually auditing two of the factories in the building.

AFL-CIO Solidarity Center and Ethical Trading Initiative are both calling on the Bangladeshi government to better enforce its labour and building codes and on multinational companies that source from Bangladesh to prioritise health and safety conditions in line with the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety for the Ready-Made Garment Sector in Bangladesh, which was adopted on 24 March 2013.

BSCI will “continue to urge the Bangladeshi government and other stakeholders to implement the National Occupational Health Safety Policy, which foresees a series of measures to upgrade the industrial infrastructures of the country.”

An analysis by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) estimates that the garment industry would need to spend $3 billion to bring Bangladesh’s more than 4,500 factories up to standards within five years. The Atlantic calculates that this amounts to less than 10 cents a garment. Or, three percent of the $19 billion the BGMEA says Western companies spend each year on manufacturing in the country.

The WRC calculated that more than 700 workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh in the last decade. According to AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, as of mid-April at least 41 factory fires have occurred in Bangladesh since flames killed over 100 garment workers in November’s Tazreen blaze, a factory that made garments for several American, British and European retailers.

Shockingly, Bangladeshi manufacturers told The Atlantic just a couple of months ago that foreign orders actually increased in the wake of the Tazreen fires.

A politically sensitive situation…

Human Rights Watch knows of no cases in which the Bangladeshi government has ever prosecuted a factory owner over the deaths of workers.

Now, the BGMEA is calling for those responsible for the collapse to be prosecuted. They’ve also cancelled the membership of the companies operating in Rana Plaza.

Many factory owners in Bangladesh wield considerable political power. The Bangladeshi Garment and Industrial Workers Federation reports that more than 10 percent of members of parliament have ownership stakes in garment factories.

In an interview with a government minister in 2011, the official told Human Rights Watch that ‘it would be “impossible” to improve workers rights so long as factory owners were senior members of political parties’. The owner of the Rana Plaza was reportedly an influential local politician within the country’s ruling party, and he now faces up to seven years in prison.

The New York Times has found that there are only a few unions representing garment workers in Bangladesh. Although technically workers have the right to collective bargaining, those that have tried to form unions have been fired, beaten and even killed – as was the case just earlier this month for labour leader, Aminul Islam, whose phone was tapped, who was regularly harassed and ultimately tortured and murdered. The case remains under investigation.

Fazle Asan Abed, of Bangladeshi antipoverty organisation BRAC, told the New York Times op-ed that workers“must be allowed by their employers to unionize, so they can engage in collective bargaining and hold their employers responsible for basic standards of pay and safety. Their organized power is the only thing that can stand up to the otherwise unaccountable nexus of business owners and politicians, who are often one and the same.”

Moving beyond compliance

The New York Times Editorial Board demands that companies that source from Bangladesh do much more. They should be putting pressure on factory owners and paying for safer factories. These companies should also be pressing the government to allow unions and implement the National Action Plan, improving the processes for inspection and meaningful, regular audits.

In the short term, the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh and War on Want call for Primark, Mango and Matalan, clients thought to be sourcing from some of the factories in Rana Plaza, to fully compensate victims and their families.

Thus far, Primark is the only company to acknowledge that one of its suppliers occupied the building. Walmart has said that none of its clothes were authorised to be made there but are investigating whether any of their production did take place in the building.

Clearly, there is a need for much greater transparency all along the garment value chain.

If a company cannot adequately manage the 3,000+ factories it sources from, then it shouldn’t be sourcing from such a large number of factories.

We spoke today to Ruby Ghuznavi, one of Ethical Fashion Forum’s original Founding Members, who works on the ground in Bangladesh, to get a sense of the feeling on the ground in Dhaka, describing how the people there are “up in arms” about the “senseless” tragedy. Her conclusion is that the industry is rife with corruption and that compliance is simply not working.

SOURCE member Ms. Wanda’s Wardrobe, last week launched the Let’s Fix Fashion: 1% campaign which calls for companies to sign up to a minimum of 1% of profits invested into responsible sourcing; grants available for factories so they can afford to implement necessary changes; more regular and unannounced audits of factories; better working with NGOs and trade unions to develop meaningful policies. This campaign launch is now more important then ever.

Value Chain Call to Action for the Fashion Industry: Join the industry in a constructive response… Contribute your ideas, now.

In the wake of this terrible disaster the Ethical Fashion Forum, through our SOURCE platform, is co-ordinating a collaborative industry response, alongside partner organisations and trade bodies.

We will focus on the practical and constructive steps that need to be taken by the industry – both supply and retail sectors – to make sure that such an event will never happen again.

We are co-ordinating a collaborative response in two stages:

1.) Galvanising our industry network of over 15,000 professionals and businesses and hundreds of partner organisations and trade bodies in 130 countries to contribute ideas to a Value Chain Call to Action. The goal of this is to build upon and bring together existing campaigns and initiatives in a co-ordinated response.

2.) The Ethical Fashion Forum will liaise with partner organisations, taking into account all input, and issue a Value Chain Call to Action for the Fashion Industry.

This will be used as a tool in our liaison with members and its targets built into our programme of industry events.

Give us your input on what needs to be done to ensure this never happens again, fill out the form in under 3 minutes.

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