The death toll continues to rise in Dhaka in Bangladesh. At the last count, over 400 people have died, and 2,500 have been injured. A May Day march through the streets of the city, traditionally a time for workers to air their grievances, has taken on a special significance and gravity this year. The owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, who illegally added three stories to his building after only securing permission for five, is in custody--and Bangladeshi garment workers are calling for his head.
The Guardian reports a young factory worker, Mongidul Islam Rana, as saying:
"I want the death penalty for the owner of the building. We want regular salaries, raises and absolutely we want better safety in our factories.Vengeance is one thing, but Mongidul is right. The problems of corruption, worker abuse and workplace safety are a symptom of the malaise at the heart of fast fashion production in Asia, and picking out one man, however guilty he might be, does not solve the wider problems.
It's interesting to see the responses of Western retailers caught in the controversy. Primark have been open and straightforward over their role, and have offered compensation. Benetton and Mango, on the other hand, only admitted their clothing was made at the Rana Plaza after news footage emerged of their clothes amidst the rubble. Walmart and Bon Marche remain silent on the issue.
More, clearly, needs to be done. The most immediately positive step forward would be for foreign manufacturers to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire And Safety Agreement, an agreement that would fundamentally reshape both construction and workplace safety in the country. The BFSA calls for independent building inspection, and work on emergency access, often either blocked by factory rubbish or barred and locked shut.
The agreement would establish a chief inspector, independent of companies, trade unions and factories to execute a safety program. Audits of hazards would be made public. Corrective actions recommended by the inspector would be enforcable by law.
Retailers would agree to pay factories enough so that they could afford renovations, and they would be forbidden from doing business with noncompliant facilities. The inclusion of labor representatives on the task force overseeing the agreement would build employee confidence in factory safety, as would a clause establishing that workers make up at least half the members of factory health and safety committees.
All of which sounds pretty fair to me. Primark, shamefully, are dragging their heels on signing up and are working on implementing their own plan. This follows Gap, who put a self-funded fire safety plan in place following the Tazreen fire in November.
The problem is that the BFSA extols independence and transparency in its reports and recommendations. Primark's plans would have none of these guarantees in place. It's vital that worker safety in Bangladesh is safeguarded by an organisation without a vested interest in keeping costs at these factories down--typically achieved by cutting back on wages, benefits and safety measures.
By refusing to sign the BFSA, Primark are undoing all their hard work in compensating the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. The payments start to look a little bit more like hush money. If we want to prevent another disaster like the one last week, then there has to be change, and it has to be clear what those changes are going to be. For the workers of Bangladesh, the notion of shady foreign interests claiming one thing and doing another behind closed doors is old news. The BFSA could blow all that wide open.
The Bangladesh Fire And Safety Agreement is available to download and read in its entirety at the International Labour Rights Forum website link below.