It was 1:00am on 11 April this year and the 250-worker night shift was hard at work in the factory housing the Spectrum Sweater Factory and Shahrair Fabrics Industry in Savar Dhaka, Bangladesh. Without warning the factory crumbled onto their heads. After a desperate eight-day-long search dug out survivors – many of them so badly injured they would never work again – the final death toll rested at 74.
The factory, which produced brands for such well-known European companies as Carrefour of France, Cotton Group of Belgium and Zara, Karstadt Quelle of Germany, had been approved for four stories. The owners had taken advantage of this to push the building up to nine stories. The factory was poorly constructed and built on swampland with limited access for rescue vehicles. Previous worker-complaints about cracks in the factory walls had been ignored. The Bangladeshi engineer Aktar-uz-Zaman – who was charged with investigating the accident – discounted initial speculation that the collapse had been due to a boiler explosion, finding instead that the accident was due to ‘a faulty design with cheap construction materials and without a solid foundation.’
This was the worst incident so far in an industry plagued with accidents, poor working conditions and a lack of worker rights. The industry is highly profitable – the source of some 76 per cent of the country’s exports – with between 1.5 and 2 million garment workers employed in 2,700 factories across Bangladesh. Some 82 per cent of these workers are women. Most work 14 to 16 hour days, often seven days a week. The government minimum wage of $20 a month is commonly ignored, with real wages closer to $14 a month for the lowest paid workers.
The industry has experienced a plethora of ‘incidents’ killing dozens of workers since 2000, mostly in factory fires. It puts the Bangladeshi garment trade right up there with Chinese coal mining as one of the most dangerous industries in the world.
In addition to these major catastrophes there are a flurry of daily deaths and injuries due to the poor health and safety conditions throughout the industry. Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the Brussels-based International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation claims such accidents are ‘the inevitable consequence of the race to the bottom now under way as a result of unregulated trade in textiles and clothing. ... [R]esponsibility lies with the World Trade Organization, which turns a blind eye to any suggestion that there is a link between trade and the conditions under which goods are manufactured, and with the Government of Bangladesh, whose authorities apply neither planning rules nor labour laws.’
Campaigners are trying different tactics to aid the struggling Bangladeshi textile workers. Some, like Linda Yanz on the Ethical Trading Network, believe pressure needs to be put on the big clothing brands who contract suppliers to make sure that working conditions and wages are up to a humane standard. For Yanz, getting these companies to pull out is only a last resort. By contrast, Salma Islam writing in Dhaka’s New Age, believes a new regime of compliance with International Labour Organization standards – similar to that taking place in Cambodia’s textile industry – offers the best way forward. A multi-pronged strategy will likely be needed to tackle some of the world’s harshest labour conditions.