Columns

Cheap goods, disposable lives

Keeble McFARLANE

Saturday, May 11, 2013    

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IT is one of those sad and inescapable facts of life: the poor always pay — with their health and all too often, with their lives. The latest stage for that tragic truism to play out is Bangladesh, which in the past few years has become the world’s sewing room. More than four million workers predominantly women — crowd into stifling buildings every day to manipulate bolts of cloth into jumpers, cargo pants, slacks, hoodies, baseball caps, underwear and other garments to keep up with the latest styles in the affluent countries of Europe, North America and the Far East.

Salvage workers in a community on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, were still scouring the wreckage of a building which collapsed three weeks ago when news of another factory disaster came. The death count for the collapse is now well above 1,000, and the latest fire, which raced through another clothing factory two days ago, claimed eight lives. These latest calamities, including a fire in November that killed 112 people — have focused the world’s attention on the safety of workers in the Bangladeshi garment industry.

The Government announced on Wednesday that it had closed 18 of the country’s 3,500 garment factories for safety reasons after the collapse of Rana Plaza, which housed five operations making clothes for western brands. After inspectors issued safety certificates the next day, six operations were cleared to reopen, even as salvage teams continued to pull bodies from the ruins of the crumpled building.

Officials blame the collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza complex on shoddy materials and the lack of necessary official clearances and permits. They claim the builders used sub-standard reinforcing rods and concrete made without sufficient cement to put up the building on swampy ground without proper foundations. A department of the Ministry of Commerce says in a report that the poor construction meant that the building was unable to support heavy machinery. Apparently what caused the collapse was when generators were started during a power failure.

Formed in misery, backwardness and turmoil

When India was partitioned 67 years ago, eastern Bengal became part of Pakistan, but the two sections of the new country were separated by 1,500 kilometres of a truncated India. For decades East Pakistan chafed from economic neglect, political exclusion together with ethnic and linguistic discrimination by the Government situated in the west.

Eventually these resentments and grievances boiled over in 1971 into a civil war and, with help from India, the east broke away and declared itself a new country: Bangladesh. It wallowed in poverty, backwardness, underdevelopment, famine, political turmoil and military coups until the restoration of democracy in 1991. Since then, the country has enjoyed relative calm along with some economic progress. But it still faces many serious challenges — not the least of which is its huge population crammed into a small space. Bangladesh has the world’s eighth-largest population — 160 million people — who occupy a smaller territory than Cuba and the Dominican Republic combined. These Caribbean giants, between them, are home to a mere 20 million.

Other negative factors are continuing poverty and political instability, in addition to corruption and the ever-present threat of natural disasters. Most of Bangladesh lies in a delta formed by the confluence of the powerful Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers and some of their tributaries. The alluvial soil deposited by the annual flood cycles of these great rivers has created some of the most fertile land in the world. But that is also a problem in itself — a wide swath of the country is less than 12 metres above sea level, and a simple rise in the sea from climate change could flood one-tenth of the already crowded land.

Nevertheless, since independence Bangladesh has experienced substantial improvement in human development. Its children have access to universal primary education, infant mortality has declined, there has been remarkable improvement in maternal health care together with a marked slowing of population growth through family planning. Life expectancy has increased, there is movement towards self-sufficiency in food production as well as real economic growth.

That growth has come by way of a confluence of the interests of Bangladeshi business people and giant retail chains in wealthy countries. Customers of these retail chains love the low prices they pay for T-shirts and jogging pants, but don’t concern themselves too much about how and where those garments originate. These organisations squeeze the factory owners as well as the Bangladeshi Government for concessions so that they can pay the lowest price for what those factories produce. They then have the luxury of retailing clothes for 10 times what they pay at the factory door. Sixty per cent of the clothes made in Bangladesh go to Europe, while the US takes about a quarter of its output.

The Government’s role is to make sure labour disruptions are kept to a minimum. Three years ago, when the country suffered considerable labour strife, it set up a special industrial police squad almost 3,000-strong to gather information and prevent unrest in factory areas.

Factory owners tend to have political connections — in fact, more than 30 bosses in the garment industry are members of parliament — one-tenth of the legislative body. And until now, the authorities have not been vigilant in policing the fairly decent building and safety standards that do exist.

Lowest minimum wages

While other poor countries have been raising their pay levels, Bangladesh remains at the bottom of the pile. According to the World Bank, it ranks last in minimum wages, behind Cambodia, which only a few years ago emerged from a long, dark period of war and political savagery. Even recent steps by the Government to improve the workers’ lot have been minimal. After the unrest of 2010, the monthly minimum wage went up 80 per cent, to 3,000 takas (about US$38). Many factory owners say they pay their workers an average of 5,000 takas (US$64). But even at these low wages, people are better off than they, or their parents, have ever been. China, itself a low-cost labour country, has been climbing up the food chain and its workers earn much more. Chinese businesses are now turning to Bangladesh for low-cost production.

Some of the western companies which rely on Bangladeshi production appear to have been stirred to action by the recent disaster. Loblaws, Canada’s biggest supermarket chain, has a low-cost garment label it calls Joe Fresh. It buys products made in 47 facilities in Bangladesh, including the building which collapsed. The company’s head, Galen Weston, says he wants to make sure conditions improve, and has sent four senior executives to meet Government and labour officials. He says his company will add “building integrity” to its audits of contractors’ factories and will station staff there to make sure suitable conditions are maintained. He has also organised a fund for the families of the dead workers. Weston says his company will remain in Bangladesh because well-run factories can help lift people out of poverty in developing countries.

Lovely sentiments, but we will see whether his company and the many others who take advantage of rock-bottom costs do anything concrete to improve the lives of workers in far-off lands, where problems tend to be “out of sight, out of mind”.

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