The world is still reeling from heartbreaking scenes in Bangladesh, where over 380 people died when a building collapsed last Wednesday, containing factories producing clothing for our high-street shops. The news covered live scenes of people digging with their hands in the rubble to drag bodies out, voices trapped inside asking for water and saying they can’t breathe, weeping families who have lost loved ones. But the sad fact is that this isn’t an isolated incident. More than 700 workers have died in factory collapses and fires in this very small region outside Dhaka alone in the last decade.
Savar, where the building collapse took place, is a swampland which has seen mass growth in recent years, with hundreds of factories thrown up in a short space of time, and limited building regulation or health and safety measures. This same region saw the horrific Tazreen factory fire in November last year, where 112 workers burned alive in a building with no fire exits.
In 2005 a similar factory building collapse, Spectrum, killed over 100 workers. Not to mention numerous small scale incidents that don’t hit global news headlines. Fires and work place disasters have been taking lives every month in factories in Bangladesh for as long as these factories have existed. Brands so far have expressed shock and condolence for the families of workers who have died. But condolence isn’t what Bangladesh needs now. Families of victims need a proper response which with make sure they are compensated fully, and Bangladesh’s workers need to know they will not put at fatal risk every time they enter work places to produce our t-shirts.
So far only Primark and the Canadian company Lobslaw have come forward to say that they will pay compensation to workers. I hope very soon that the other brands sourcing from Rana Plaza will identify themselves and make a similar commitment. How this compensation is now negotiated is crucial. While I welcome Primark coming forward to say they will pay, it is important that they realise that this isn’t an easy road, and that they can’t simply doll out money and be gone. Since the Spectrum factory building collapse in 2005, trade unions and labour rights groups have worked to establish a mechanism for agreeing compensation to the families of the dead and injured workers, with the government, industry and brands paying a share of this.
Similar collaborative agreements have been signed and delivered in a number of recent factory cases. Primark and other brands who come forward to pay their share must take part in a similar process of negotiation with trade unions, and commit to long term, collaborative and transparent work to make sure this money gets to those who need it most. Furthermore those workers who survived the disaster are now without work. Brands sourcing from the factory also need to make sure these workers receive the wages they are owed, compensation to cover their medical fees, and are given support to find new employment. Brand statements on this front are hazy, but the issue is nonetheless pressing.
But what about the long term? How can disasters like this be avoided in the future? The Clean Clothes Campaign together with local and global unions, and labour rights organisations, have developed a program that hopes to work towards a solution. The ‘Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Agreement’ is a proposal for a a sector-wide initiative of independent building inspections, worker rights training, public disclosure and a long-overdue review of safety standards. The crucial element of the program is that unions and worker led committees take a central role in monitoring and reporting back on improvements that need to be made. This transparent and practical agreement is unique in that it is supported by all key labour stakeholders in Bangladesh and internationally. Labour Behind the Label and others are calling on all brands sourcing from Bangladesh to publicly sign up to the building and fire safety agreement, and agree to support worker-led improvements to the industry.
In the wake of tragedies such this, the Tazreen fire in November, and the Spectrum factory collapse some years ago, something must be done to make a change. This proposal is the best on the table by far. How many more deaths will it take to move brands from making CSR statements of regret, to investing in a sustainable and safe industry? I hope none.