In a statement by Human Rights Watch, it has been noted that ‘many clothing brands, mostly from the US, have not joined the Accord on Health and Safety in Bangladesh and Pakistan’ even now – a decade after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. The eight-story building was home to several shops, banks and five garment manufacturing factories. Large cracks were discovered in the building’s structure a day before the collapse but the owners of the garment factory paid no heed and made their workers come in to work in the unstable building the next day, even though the shops and bank had closed and a government inspector had ordered the evacuation of the building upon the discovery of the cracks. The collapse caused 1134 deaths, including those of rescue workers. Up to 2600 people were injured, with many becoming permanently disabled. In Pakistan, we are no strangers to unsafe buildings and a brazen disregard for workers’ safety. Consider the Baldia Town Factory Fire of 2012 which resulted in over 300 deaths. In spite of arson being alleged as the cause, investigations have concluded that poor safety measures at the factory caused the fire to spread more quickly. Factory owners were also accused of locking in their workers, treating them as if they were prisoners, and not being registered with the Labour Department. Both the Baldia and Rana Plaza incidents involved factory owners exporting goods to foreign clients and employing poor workers who had few job opportunities and many possible replacements. The real cause of these deadly accidents is this. Workers, who often have no other way to earn a living, are often powerless when it comes time to negotiate safety conditions.
The other side of this equation is a large, profitable, mostly Western brand that forms the clientele of many of our industry leaders. These brands bring in big money, which is something that countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh need desperately, and they cannot be replaced. After a contract is signed, the factory owner is under enormous pressure to deliver goods in a timely manner, meet quotas, and keep their costs low. This pressure extends to local governments, who need to keep the exports flowing out and forex flowing in, leading to a lax approach towards workers’ rights and safety from national regulators when it comes to exporting industries.
In this context, the most sensible course of action would be for major brands in the advanced nations that rely on labour in the Global South to raise the standards that the factories they work with are required to meet, in order for there to be an improvement in the workers’ rights and safety situation. It would also improve safety standards in developing countries, by eliminating the conflict between higher standards and worker rights and economic gain. Since many of these companies have not signed the Accord on Safety and Health in Bangladesh and Pakistan formed in response the Rana Plaza catastrophe, we can assume that the competitive edge of countries such as ours is cheap labour and laxer standards. This is something that rich countries are not willing to change. National regulators are likely to be the ones to lead the way in implementing stricter safety standards and expanding workers’ rights to unionize and organize. It may mean a temporary economic blow, but the lives and rights of our citizens should always come first.