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Will Bangladesh’s apparel industry make the cut?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-08-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

Remember Rana Plaza? The collapse of that sweatshop complex in a Dhaka suburb in April 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly garment workers, and injured more than 2,500; that exposed culpability of some of the world’s top brands and retail chains; that became a business and human rights cause célèbre for cleaning up supply chains and for cleaning up Bangladesh’s labour and safety laws, and their application to protect the country’s garment exports sector—accounting for about 80% of its exports?

On 29 August, the building’s owner and one of the key accused Sohel Rana was sentenced—the first sentence to any of the Rana Plaza accused—to three years in prison for not submitting his statement of wealth to the government anti-corruption watchdog.

It’s seemingly bizarre, this sentencing, when Rana stands accused of a range of crimes from murder and violating building codes to graft, illegal possession of weapons, and narcotics—in a face-saving move the government basically threw the rule book at him and several other accused. But in a way it’s symbolic of the manner in which remedial action has followed the avoidable tragedy of the collapse, and extends from establishing the guilt of those involved to better and safer working conditions. With less than a year to go for deadlines to fix the sector’s ills, the object lesson that extends beyond Bangladesh to all “sweatshop countries”, including India, is hardly gratifying.

By July 2013 some US retail giants and brands including Abercrombie and Fitch Co. and Fruit of the Loom appeared to have resisted their initial cut-and-run impulse advocated by free trade gurus and adopted a solution-led approach of their European peers (Adidas, Mango, and Marks and Spencer among these). Together they signed an agreement called The Accord on Fire and Building Safety In Bangladesh. This binding accord had more than 70 garment sourcing signatories on board, besides Bangladeshi and global workers’ unions and human rights watchdogs.

That mandated a review of compliance in various factories in Bangladesh. “Initial inspections at every factory will be completed at the latest within nine months,” reported the watchdog Clean Clothes Campaign, a formal witness to the accord, “and plans for renovations and repairs put in place where necessary. These will focus on those issues that pose grave and immediate risks to workers…,” like fire safety plans and the structural integrity of factories. For starters, signatories among retailers had to declare facilities they use in Bangladesh.

A second accord, not binding—that is, it is voluntary and free from third-party oversight—was called The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. This mainly US-retailer effort was “led”, said the watchdog CorpWatch, by Wal-Mart and Gap (clothing marked for Wal-Mart was discovered in the rubble of the eight-storey Rana Plaza). With its non-binding nature, this second accord appeared to be more public relations prophylactic than meaningful remedial action, but undeniably, every effort would be a step up from the horrific gaps that existed.

In December 2015, though, a study published by The Centre for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business—Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s Forgotten Apparel Workers—shone some sharp light on matters. The authors, Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, claimed among other things that even after 3,425 inspections by trackers of the Accord, the Alliance and overseers International Labour Organization, “only eight factories have passed final inspection”.

As I read, they also pointed out that the Accord and the Alliance covered just a little over a quarter of the garment factories in Bangladesh, as most are “informal factories” which take on work down a sub-contracting chain; some aren’t even registered with the government or known to overseas buyers.

An article this May by Gillian White in The Atlantic offered a critique of the Stern School report, quoting observers to say the report may have over-stated the number of factories and workers. The article, however, underscored the report’s point that has seized all practitioners in the sector—buyers, exporters, unions, watchdogs—that the July 2018 deadline for substantially improving conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry would work, let alone—as White’s article mentions, quoting a globalization expert at University of Virginia—that all factories would be “fully remediated”.

Those that don’t make the cut could simply slip into the grey zone of the informal sector, and Bangladesh’s still-suspect oversight: The government has dragged its feet prosecuting labour and building safety officials.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

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