Again, the same painful images of corpses and rubble. And again, it is taking place in Bangladesh. There are already at least 380 fatalities following the collapse of a building that housed five textile factories in Dhaka, the capital. Hundreds more are unaccounted for. Most of them were workers who made garments for companies in Europe and the United States. Factory managers forced them to go in and work despite the cracks that had suddenly appeared inside the building. Negligence and a lack of regulations are causing constant accidents at this type of workplace. Five months ago, more than 100 people died at a fire in another factory. But this time, the sheer scope of the tragedy has turned attention to the globalized textile industry.
Bangladesh has become the new favorite destination for major fashion companies, over China and Vietnam. The reason is that it has some of the lowest wages in the world. The textile industry represents 80 percent of the Asian country’s exports, and employs four million workers. The owners of the nearly 5,000 factories in the country make up a powerful caste that finances political leaders and sits in parliament. It is no coincidence that the owner of the collapsed building, which violated all construction safety regulations, was a leading member of the party in power.
It is true that many of the major Western companies operating in Bangladesh have signed agreements with their suppliers to ensure decent working conditions for employees. Their reputation is at stake. But it is evident that the system is failing. In order to increase their profits, local producers often farm out the work to other, illegal companies that fail to meet minimum working condition standards.
Textile firms must intensify direct oversight on the ground, but even that is not enough. It is also their obligation to pressure the authorities, who until now have shown zero interest in curtailing abuse. And governments themselves cannot remain on the sidelines. Before this tragedy, the US government was already considering excluding Bangladesh from its Generalized System of Preferences, which allows several developing countries to export products duty-free to the US. The European Union should do the same. This would no doubt be a good step to force change.