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Slow progress for Bangladeshi garment workers as anniversary looms

As the first anniversary of the tragic Rana factory collapse in Bangladesh approaches, what are Australian companies doing to make their Bangladeshi factories safer? Alys Francis finds out.

It’s been almost a year since the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1130 people, who had been ordered to keep working after cracks appeared in the walls around them.

It was the deadliest industrial accident since India’s 1984 Bhopal disaster, shining a light on the human cost of cheap clothes and Bangladesh’s booming, budget garment industry, which exploded from 50 factories in 1980 to more than 5600 today. It was hardly the first time garment workers lost their lives in Bangladesh — more than 600 died in the decade before Rana Plaza, and a factory fire killed a further 10 a few months after.

Now unions are piling pressure on Western firms to cough up for compensation for victims (and their family members) of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza disaster; about 4000 people in total. They aim to get US$40 million for the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund to cover lost wages and medical bills before the anniversary of the disaster in April. So far only the brands Mango, Inditex (which includes the brand Zara), Loblaw, El Corte Ingles and Mascot have contributed.

Although no Australian company made clothes at the Rana complex, many sell products made in Bangladesh. Have they done anything to help the roughly 4 million garment workers still working behind sewing machines in Bangladesh?

Kmart has supported a charity that helped victims, CRP-Bangladesh, and was first to offer compensation when a factory burned down in October (Kmart, Target and Big W all placed orders there). No Australia company has donated to the Donors Fund as yet.

Almost all Australian companies that use Bangladesh garment factories have now signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, a legally binding agreement under which about 1500 factories will be inspected by September of this year, with companies paying for safety improvements. The retailers that signed the accord — Cotton On Group, Forever New, Kmart Australia, Pacific Brands (which has brands Bonds, Superdry and Berlei), Pretty Girl Fashion Group (Table Eight, Rockmans), Specialty Fashion Group Australia (Rivers, Katies), Target Australia, Woolworths Australia and Big W — say they have no plans to stop sourcing from Bangladesh. Instead they say they hope to improve the garment industry there, which employs mainly young women and accounts for about 80% of Bangladesh’s foreign earnings.

Two major Australian companies, Just Group and Best and Less, refused to sign the accord, ignoring protests by labour groups. Just Group (which has Just Jeans, Peter Alexander and Portmans) dodged questions from media and joined a watered-down agreement called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. That isn’t legally binding and has no union involvement.

Best and Less maintains that its own efforts to keep an eye on factories are enough; “… we believe we can most responsibly manage and provide the highest possible level of scrutiny over our Bangladesh production by working directly with a small group of suppliers,” a spokesperson said.

IndustriALL Global Union policy director Jenny Holdcroft, who helped create the accord, disputes this, saying it’s widely understood that companies doing their own auditing are ineffective. The Rana accident triggered a shift, “a recognition that the last 10-15 years of CSR [corporate social responsibility] and auditing did not deliver any change,” she said.

It’s a sad fact but this was a really big catalyst for change in the industry.”

While some local companies say ethical sourcing has been on the agenda since manufacturing started shifting offshore almost 50 years ago, others say Rana Plaza was a turning point. “It’s a sad fact but this was a really big catalyst for change in the industry,” said Cotton On senior communications manager Greer McCracken. Cotton On risk and compliance manager Jacqueline Hennessy flew to Geneva twice to nut out the accord as part of the steering committee.

Some firms are now throwing off the shroud of corporate secrecy and making public details about the factories they use. So far, Kmart is the only Australian retailer to have published a list of its Bangladesh factories online, with plans to publish Chinese and Indian factories later this year. Target and Pacific Brands say they are following suit.

McCracken says consumers are more aware about the source of their clothing. “They are far more savvy than they were five years ago or probably even 18 months ago,” she said. Many companies say customers are now using social media to hold them to account.

Cotton On, Target, Kmart and Big W all now employ staff on the ground in Bangladesh to check factories. Cotton On is running a healthcare van for workers and their children, and the company is considering a mobile schooling initiative.

But McCracken says there is only so much companies can do in Bangladesh. “You have to remember we are an Australian company. Yes, we can apply pressure, but we aren’t the Bangladeshi government,” she said.

The Bangladeshi government lifted the minimum wage to $US68 a month in November after protests and amended the Labour Act in July, leading to 96 new trade unions being registered in the ready-made garment sector.

Still, it’s widely understood that the accord and other agreements are just the first steps to genuine improvement.

There are many other issues for workers in Bangladesh; the minimum wage is acutely low, even with recent increases [it] is still far below what they would need to have to be considered what we would call a living wage,” said Textile Clothing & Footwear Union of Australia national secretary Michele O’Neil, who has been putting pressure on local companies to compensate Rana victims. “It’s pretty disgraceful — of the 150 companies that have signed the accord only four have agreed to pay compensation to the workers who are either dead or injured.”

Despite being snubbed as a “sham” deal, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety did produce survey results in February finding 45% of workers from 28 factories were not trained in fire drills and 57% had witnessed an accident — fires, electrical shocks, chemical spills. And while the legal age of employment is 14, the industry still hires younger children.

CRP-Bangladesh advocacy officer Masud Rana says of the 485 Rana victims he helped, six amputees are still waiting for new limbs. Those who received vocational training are now looking for work outside the factories. “They do not like to go back in the big factories because they are scared,” he said.

O’Neil says it is crucial to keep pressure on companies so workers in developing countries got their basic rights. “Workers don’t say ‘I want a job at any price,’ they say, ‘I want a job so I can feed my family and am safe’, you know, nobody wants to die at work sitting behind a sewing machine.”

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