Will brands and governments take action on Bangladesh?

Photo: AFP
As the death toll climbed to 1,124 deaths on Monday, the collapse of Bangladeshi garment factory building is starting to illicit a response. After many brands admitted that some of their production was housed in the building, the current reaction is pressure and policies on a macro-economic level.

H&M just announced the signing of the Fire and Building Safety Agreement, a document initiated by NGOs IndustriAll and Uni Global Nation and which had only thus far received the signatures of the U.S. group PVH (Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein) and the German retailer Tchibo. Global retailer Inditex is also in support of the aggreement. That is what Dorothée Kellou expects to happen, project manager of the NGO Peuples Solidares (People United) and a member of the international collection Ethique sur l’etiquette (Ethics in labeling).

“We need at least four [brands] for the agreement to become effective,” said Dorothée Kellou to the French daily newspaper Libération. In her interview, she also criticized minor isolated initiatives of some brands, such as Adidas’s anonymous hotline for employees or a video on fire prevention in factories that have no fire extinguishers.

Major brands might feel lackluster about the Fire and Building Safety Agreement because it entails the creation of a common fund financed by themselves — those companies outsourcing to Bangladesh — to pay for independent audits. Such a development would mean that participating companies could no longer rely on their own commissioned audits, the results of which consumers and NGOs rarely see.

International pressure

But if brands are slow to react to recent events, European and American governments might be taking the lead. The EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht and Catherine Ashton, head of EU foreign policy, are currently organizing a meeting of European retailers that source their production in Bangladesh. The European Union is also threatening the Bangladeshi government in Dhaka of revoking the country’s trade advantages with Europe.

Bangladesh benefits from the European Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) regulations that allow them to export cheaply to Europe. The GSP is a real leveraging tool that Brussels intends to use rigorously to push local authorities into adopting an emergency policy for improving the working conditions of its garment industry.

The message is even stronger, given that Bangladesh could also lose its preferential access to the U.S. market. A review is currently underway and expected to last several months, following the assassination last year of a Bangladeshi labor activist who was working for the establishment of a safety policy in factories. The recent catastrophe and the images it has spread around the world could speed up Washington's decision, according to local media.

Who will pay?

Bangladesh is the world’s second largest producer of clothing. The country must now do some soul searching about its involvement in the event in the weeks to come. The loss of international customers could indeed pose a serious problem to the national economy. The garment industry represents some 80% of exports, which totaled $29 billion last year.

In any case, the leaders of the Bangladeshi textile industry seem to be sizing up the issue. “It is a crucial time for us,” said Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, in comments to the AP. “We are doing our best to improve the safety measures in the factories. We expect our buyers to bear with us and help us to overcome the current crisis. It's not the time to turn away from us. That will hurt the industry and many of the workers will lose jobs.”

The call for clothing brands to support better working conditions raises the most problematic question about changing production conditions: who will foot the bill? The manufacturers, who are already forced to cut back costs to continue to attract orders? The international brands, already tempted by other more competitive countries with less negative publicity? U.S. and European consumers whose consumption level is already more than sluggish? As we wait for a response, the Bangladeshi working class has already paid a very high price: 1,124 lives.

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