Accidents are rarely inevitable and often preventable. Unfortunately, as the textile sector expands, not many countries are focusing on developing the safety measures at the textile factories. The emergence of Bangladesh as the second largest exporter of textile has coincided with accidents at textile manufacturing units, which is making the global textile industries tread into the Bangladesh territory cautiously. A textile building collapse followed by a fire in a knitwear industry, the accidents have caused thousands of casualties, but, the measures regarding workers' safety have neither been drastic nor immediate.


The labour in Bangladesh was among the lowest paid in the world, which was one of the main reasons behind developed countries establishing units in Bangladesh. However, after long negotiations the Bangladeshi minimum wage board announced a 76 percent hike in wages. Though this 76 percent increase is to be considered a welcome news for the labourers, but regrettably this hike has resulted in more troubles than ever. The reasons behind the workers demand to raise the minimum wage can be credited to the rise in accidents. Nevertheless, this increase in minimum wage has also resulted in further degradation of the safety measures.


This vicious cycle has been noticed in the recent inspection done via agencies hired by textile units of foreign nations in Bangladesh. The U.S.A. and European retailers responded to accidents by forming groups to ensure better safety standards and regular inspections. The safety assessment revealed that some textile factories lacked required fire exit doors, some did not have adequate sprinkler systems and some factories had dangerously heavy weight loads on several floors. Brands including Gap, Walmart, Target and some twenty three other North American retailers have formed a separate group to focus on and improve the safety at apparel factories in Bangladesh.



Some industry experts are of the opinion that even though the wage rise has hit the manufacturers badly, still the big names in the textile industry do not want their brands to be associated with accidents of any kind. Thus, no matter what the expenditure is, these industry bigwigs are working towards the safety issues in their manufacturing units in Bangladesh.


This apart the suppliers from Bangladesh are under immense pressure to improve the working conditions, even as the hike in wages has resulted in laxity in safety measures. Several manufacturers in Bangladesh are trying to maintain the profit margin that they earned prior to the pay rise; the result being ignoring the safety issues and making the labourers work in hazardous conditions. The main concern of the Bangladeshi manufacturers is losing trade to rival Asian textile producing nations like China, who are providing better working conditions and thus keeping the Western units out of any controversy.

 

Another important issue for Bangladesh is that the European Union has already started showing signs of frustration following lack of support from the Bangladesh's political circle to work with regard to labour rights and factory safety. The United States has suspended the trade privileges granted to Bangladesh under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) and if European countries follow the footsteps of the U.S.A. it would badly affect the overall economy of Bangladesh.


The exports of readymade garments from Bangladesh have lost ground over the past few months, with growth of just 7.1 percent registered in January this year which is very low compared with the same month a year earlier.


It is very evident that the safety issues facing the Bangladesh garment industry are not only grave but also extensive. Only immediate and coordinated actions can ensure safety of more than 3 million Bangladeshi women and millions of other male workers employed to make garments. Even though the big names in textile industry have the realisation regarding safety measures, but most of it has been mere lip sympathy. The lack of action on part of the companies and the ease of passing the buck on each other has led to the issue being sidelined so far. The manufacturers from Bangladesh are pointing fingers at the international buyers for not fairly playing their part in safety measures. The Western units expect the local manufacturers to increase the productivity if they (local manufacturers) want to earn more profits. This, conversely, is not possible without increasing the wages and saving money by compromising on work conditions.


Even as some manufacturers are holding the labourers' wage rise culpable for lack of funds in work place safety department, it is completely unfair to risk lives of hardworking workers at any cost. The commitment shown by the Western retailers to work on the safety issues must be put into action. Mere lip sympathy after the accidents will not prove to be healthy in long run. The inspections have revealed the flawed safety issues under which the workers are working. The clothing exports will continue to bloom in the country only if the local manufacturers and western units are ready to work in coordination with each other and ensure that the workers are provided secure and safe working ambience.

References:


1. Stream.wsj.com

2. Cleanclothes.org

3. Ft.com

4. Ecouterre.com

5. Business.financialpost.com