Viewpoint on Bangladesh Disaster: It’s Not All About the West

The West shouldn't drown out the Bangladeshis' fear and anger with a perennial debate over globalization

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MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / AFP / Getty Images

Bangladeshi activists at a procession to mark May Day or International Workers Day in Dhaka on May 1, 2013.

On April 24, more than 400 people died when an eight-story building on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed like a house of cards. The building, Rana Plaza, contained a bank, shops and several garment factories that, as news reports stressed, produced apparel for large Western brands like Benetton, Children’s Place and Primark. Sadly, without the Western-brands angle, the collapse might not have even made news in the Western world. But now, because of this connection, the disaster has become fodder for the perennial debate over globalization.

Many North American and European human-rights groups and labor activists claim that the Western companies who send their production overseas should be held responsible for this disaster, as their relentless demand for cheaper and faster fashion squeezes powerless Asian suppliers. In this scenario, Western consumers also bear some responsibility by buying the garments that support these poor labor conditions.

(MORE: Bangladesh Factory Collapse Will Force Companies to Rethink Outsourced Manufacturing)

But Western sourcing practices are not the main factor here. While Western activists protested outside the Gap headquarters in San Francisco last week (Gap’s spokesperson says the company did not have ties to the collapsed factories), in Bangladesh thousands of garment workers also took to the streets and were met by police spraying rubber bullets and teargas. These Bangladeshi protesters were not directing their outrage at the Western brands or cost-conscious consumers, but at their own failed network of governance.

(PHOTOS: Hundreds Dead as Garment Factory in Bangladesh Collapses)

The apparel industry may be global, but the blame for this disaster should be primarily local, focused on the bribes, corruption and ineptitude that allowed the Rana complex to be illegally built and occupied in the first place. The building’s owner was a crooked mobster. The building permit was granted by an office that wasn’t authorized to issue such permits. The construction was subpar, and the factory bosses knowingly sent workers back into the building, assuring them that it was safe. The collapse and resulting deaths were caused by these local failures, not by the business practices of Western firms.

Yes, without demand from Western brands, the Bangladeshi economy would implode. The country is currently ranked as the world’s second largest apparel exporter, closing in on No. 1 China, whose industry is waning. But the country holds another ranking: according to Transparency International, Bangladesh’s Corruption Perceptions Index score is 26 on a scale of 0 to 100 — a failing grade by any measure. “Corruption translates into human suffering,” writes Transparency International, a truth that is tragically evident as the death toll continues to rise in Dhaka.

(MORE: Fast, Cheap, Dead: Shopping and the Bangladesh Factory Collapse)

Western apparel brands can and should address the conditions in which their clothing is produced and be held accountable for labor and safety conditions through their complex supply chains. There is even some evidence that consumers are willing to pay at least a small premium for assurance that their clothing is produced in fair and safe working conditions.

But we must also recognize that the anger on the streets of Dhaka is different from the anger on the streets of San Francisco, and the Bangladeshis’ anger deserves to be heard. If our reporters and diplomats listen to the Bangladeshi workers, they would hear the anger of those trapped not by global capitalism, but by the very institutions that are supposed to protect the workers and their families. The mundane protections the West takes for granted — building codes, inspections, zoning, fire protection and occupancy rules — sound almost too boring to make a fuss about. But Bangladeshis deserve better, not just from Western brands, but also from their own rotten politics.

MORE: Cover Story: Made in the USA

6 comments
fingertrouble
fingertrouble

Don't agree with this at all - it takes pressure from consumers in the West to those corporates for anything to change. It's obvious the local government won't do anything, or is corrupt (see the local MP that was in bed with Rana) so pressure from Primark, Matalan, Benneton via their consumers is probably the most direct way to change working conditions.

Washing your hands saying 'it's a local problem' just lets the bad conditions continue, and the west pressure for cheap clothes is part of the problem. No-one is saying we should take business elsewhere,a fairer trade yes (according to TUC it would take an extra 2 pence to double Bangladeshi workers wages - a pittance) - but I am happy to pay slightly more if it means the people don't die in factory collapses or fires, and are treated well - sounds like that actually doesn't cost much, despite what the corporates say - they're just protecting their own greed. We need Fairtrade in clothes, it's there in food but we need high street ethical clothing...and to those in the US, Mexico is almost as bad, and Malaysia, it's not just Bangladesh.

atwalster
atwalster

Great article, has varied view points.  Just as an add on:  I would like to share a OLD story, of how many women died in a clothing sweat shop in Manhattan at the beginning of the last century.  Simillar conditions, now all that I am trying to point out is that many countries (PEOPLE) are at a stage that at present they need to just make money, (in any way they can).  Only once they have made enough to satiate their basic hunger, can they think of higher goals such as safety, human lives etc.  This is not my view point, but the rules of NATURE.  Maslow had noted them in his hierarchy of needs..   Now what we can do at best is support such people, countries, show them a better humane way, but allow them to reach it on their own, instead of advocating our ways as the best.   Just look at another side of the equation, Western developed countries are now facing chronic unemployment, people are showing increased signs of depression and other mental issues, despite such high standards of living, security etc.  Does that make us to pause and think just a bit!

Wavelength
Wavelength

True that the blame lies locally. Yet, you cannot dangle a carrot in front of a hungry mule, and then blame the mule for running towards it. Bangladesh suffers from weak government. Authorities are not only corrupt, but weak, too. The number of building inspectors, even if they were not corrupt (which they are not), would still fall far below the requirement in a burgeoning city like Dhaka and its adjacent areas. 

The money for the development that Bangladesh has seen in recent years are coming from apparel buyers. In a weak government, where administration is corrupt, the foreign financiers (i.e. buyers like Walmart, Gap, Primark, etc.) are possibly the only force that can require the clothing manufacturers to improve the work conditions for these hapless laborers. This article is shifting the focus away from that.

walstir
walstir like.author.displayName 1 Like

There are 150 million people in Bangladesh.  Are the clothes made locally there for local consumption really made in safer factories than the clothes made for export to much richer consumers?

azmalhome
azmalhome

they need money at first. if they try to considering to held responsible for this disaster. then they have to get profit low there. and who like to get low profit in the world.

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/