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.
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.
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.
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.