Fixing Bangladesh’s Factories “Not Possible” Without Western Consumers & Activists [Q&A]

Five years ago this month, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed 1,130 workers, horrifying the world and provoking calls for swift reform in the fashion industry’s shadowy supply chain. Since then, impressive global activist movements have organized to make change. Still, with a gulf between consumers and garment workers, it’s difficult to gauge how much Western efforts are being felt, and to what degree. In this interview, Elizabeth talks to professor Shahidur Rahman of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s BRAC University about the progress that’s been made since the Rana Plaza factory collapse and how the power of Western consumers can be channeled into a force for good.

You are an Associate Professor of Sociology and garment industry expert at Dhaka, Bangladesh’s BRAC University. How did you come to care about this issue?

Being a citizen of a Third World country, I always find it difficult to accept that not all the parties involved in globalization are the winners. In most of the cases, the poor countries are losers. This thought reflects my doctoral dissertation, which was on the vulnerability of the Bangladesh garment industry; later I published this as a book, called Broken Promises of Globalisation: The case of the Bangladesh Garment industry. The publication of this book has connected me with a three-year research project on “Changes in governance after Rana Plaza,” funded mainly by Volkswagon Foundation.

What do Western consumers and activists need to better understand about what’s happening on the ground in Bangladesh?

Everybody needs to understand how important the garment industry is for the economy of Bangladesh. It took so many years for today’s developed countries to be compliant with labor and environmental standards. For several years, Bangladesh was ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But in this poor country, the citizens of Bangladesh are proud of the garment industry. So many good things are happening, but it can’t be changed overnight.

How much power do Western consumers truly have to help reform the garment industry? 

We have come a long way after the Rana Plaza and so many things need to improve, which isn’t possible without Western collaboration. The achievements gained so far in the Bangladesh garment industry, in terms of inspecting about 4,000 factories since 2013, would not be possible without the pressure from Western consumers and activists. As of August 24, 2017, the Government of Bangladesh’s National Initiative had completed an assessment of 1549 factories: 1505 by The Accord on Fire and Safety, 890 by the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and 164 by both Accord and Alliance… There has been a sharp rise in trade unions after the Rana Plaza collapse due to international pressures – increased from 138 trade unions in 2012 to 464 in 2017. But we need to make sure no one takes advantage of politicizing unions.

Wages for garment workers, however, have not increased since Rana Plaza.  What are the forces keeping wages low in Bangladesh? How do we change this?

The wage the workers receive is not a living wage; it’s very difficult to have a decent life with this wage. First, the nature of the economy is responsible for some of that. The inflation rate is high; every year the price of basic foods is increasing. Housing rents are also increasing. These increasing daily expenditures should be tackled. Secondly, the garment owners always say that the price they receive from their buyers is going down. After Rana Plaza, due to compliance [with safety and social standards], the cost of production is high but the profit margin is thin. One way [to increase wages for workers] would be to pressure the buyers to offer a fair price to Bangladesh garment owners and ensure that one portion of that increased price reaches the workers.

As you explain, safety in factories is getting better in Bangladesh. But how can we do more? What are the next steps?

A culture of safety has emerged in the Bangladesh garment industry after Rana Plaza. What is important is to sustain the safety system that is installed. To do that the government needs various resources such as safety equipment, training on safety, highly skilled inspectors, education on compliance, an occupational health and safety academy and other technologies to produce a transparent and accountable administrative and monitoring system. The other stakeholders can come forward to achieve these resources. Also, there is a necessity to continue the practice of social dialogue among different stakeholders