The death toll from the garment factory collapse in Dhaka has now surpassed 1,100 people and the rescue effort has ended.
In the two weeks since the tragic incident, which brought world attention to the abuses of the garment industry, laborers in Bangladesh appear to be making small gains. Major retailers are signing on to pacts aimed at improving worker safety. The Bangladesh government says it is prepared to increase the minimum wage and allow workers to form trade unions without factory owner permission.
Worker and community protests this weekend in Ashulia, a manufacturing hub located outside of Dhaka, caused about 30 factories to suspend work and closed down the city’s main highway. Cries for the death penalty for the owner of the Rana Plaza complex, Sohel Rana, were a focus of the protest.
Bangladesh garment factory workers have long had reasons for protest. But now, the world is paying attention.
Neither the garment industry or government has done much to improve worker safety and wages as this country over the past decade has become the second largest player, behind China, in the international system of clothing manufacturing.
Workers are presently paid roughly $38 per month. Worker protests in 2010 forced the issue of the minimum wage. The mass movement led to an 80% increase.
Bangladesh’s chief executive body, the Cabinet, announced a panel of factory workers, factory owners and government representatives to investigate the country’s minimum wage. Textile minister Abdul Latif Siddique expressed confidence that the panel will lead to an increase in wages.
“There is no doubt the salaries will be hiked,” he said to AFP.
Nobel Prize winning economist and Grameen Bank Founder Muhammad Yunus called for an international minimum wage in a Sunday column for the Guardian.
This might be about 50 cents an hour, twice the level typically found in Bangladesh. This minimum wage would be an integral part of reforming the industry, which would help to prevent future tragedies. We have to make international companies understand that while the workers are physically in Bangladesh, they are contributing their labour to the businesses: they are stakeholders. Physical separation should not be grounds to ignore the wellbeing of this labour.
The Cabinet followed up the panel formation today by making it possible for workers to form unions without the permission of factory owners.
“No such permission from owners is now needed,” Government spokesman Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told reporters after the Cabinet meeting presided over by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. “The government is doing it for the welfare of the workers.”
Unions are legal in Bangladesh, but factory owners and the government have managed to prevent their formation. Police cracked down on protests in 2010 and six workers rights activists were arrested this year only to be set free later. Given the past actions, labor rights activists are less than thrilled by the announcement.
“The issue is not really about making a new law or amending the old one,” said Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, a group campaigning for garment workers’ rights. “In the past whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beatings and harassment,” she said. “The owners did not hesitate to fire such workers.”
Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, argued in the New York Times shortly after the disaster that stronger unions are needed in the country. He says that industrialization has been an important component to the development of the country. Rather than focus on outsiders taking away business, the concern should lie with ensuring worker rights in the country, he argues. Change comes from within Bangladesh.
The solutions start with the workers themselves; they 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.
The $18 billion a year export garment industry is making small steps towards labor and wage rights, but there is still little indication of change in regards to working conditions. Concerns about the cost of improving factory conditions were aired in the past, but the DC-based Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC) estimates the impact will be minimal on retail prices.
Scott Nova of the WRC told the Atlantic that it will cost roughly $3 billion to improve factory conditions in Bangladesh. That adds about $0.08 to every piece of clothing. Consumers would likely see an increase in their clothing by $0.25, a small price to pay to improve electrical wiring, install fire exits and ensure alarm systems are working properly, argues Nova.
One challenge is that consumers want the lowest prices possible. The competition to drive down cost and the possible loss of customers may prevent large retailers from enacting the changes, says CGD’s Kimberly Ann Elliott.
“This is an industry that’s very low wage, very low skill, highly mobile, and highly competitive, so the incentives are for factory managers to cut costs as much as they can,” she said in the recent Global Prosperity Wonkcast. “Buyers are looking around the world for the lowest prices they can find, and unfortunately we as consumers are complicit, because we’re looking for the cheapest clothing we can find.”
She recommends that Bangladesh join the Better Work program. The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) run program provides an avenue for improving labor conditions by working with the public and private sector.
As the search for survivors comes to an end, the push to improve labor conditions and rights in Bangladesh continues.
““Made in Bangladesh” should be a mark of pride, not shame. Bangladeshi civil society stands ready to work with the authorities to make this so,” says Abed.