Public unrest by Bangladesh building collapse

Monday, 29 April 2013
Despite garment factories remaining closed in Bangladesh on Saturday and Sunday, the weekend saw heavy protests by garment workers in different parts of Dhaka, Savar and Chittagong, many of which turned violent. Angry demonstrators demanded the arrest of the owner of Rana Plaza, the building that collapsed last Wednesday, and wielded sticks, blocked highways, set vehicles on fire and attacked two garment factories. Riot police had to be called in to control the situation.

Building owner Sohel Rana has since been arrested by the police near the Indian border while he was trying to flee and flown back to Dhaka. Five other people in connection with the building collapse have also been arrested: two engineers involved in the construction of Rana Plaza, Bazlus Samad and Mahmudur Rahman Tapash of New Wave Apparels and Aminul Islam of Phantom Apparels, both garment factories located in the building.

It has since transpired that three floors of the building were added illegally and that a fourth one was planned. The local municipality had only given a permit for a five-story building, yet did not have authority to even grant that much. In addition, the building stood on the site of a former pond, which had been filled in with sand and earth, giving the whole structure a very weak foundation from the beginning.

Despite tireless efforts by rescue workers and army teams, about 900 people remain missing and as of Sunday evening, and the death toll has risen to more than 370 people. One of the worst incidents in a regular series of factory fires, building collapses and the like caused by insufficient fire and safety regulations has thrown light on the conditions under which garments and textiles are produced by western buyers in emerging markets.

International brands now forced to act

At the Rana Plaza site, fashion labels from British discounter Primark and Bon Marche, Spanish brand Mango and department store chain El Corte Inglés and Canadian brand Joe Fresh were found at the location. All five companies have confirmed that they currently or recently used one of the garment companies housed in the building.

The labels of various other brands or business documentation have also been found on site, among them Italian brand Benetton, American specialty retailers Cato Fashions and The Children’s Place and French multinational retailer Carrefour. So far, the four companies have not confirmed production in one of the factories or have declined to comment altogether.

In view of the recent events, American and European consumers are concerned about the clothes they buy. They also wonder what they can do to improve conditions and how to buy clothes that have been produced under fair conditions. Unfortunately, buying more expensive clothes is no guarantee that they would have been produced under better conditions for workers.

"The price alone gives no information about the working conditions of the seamstresses,” confirmed CCC spokeswoman Kirsten Clodius. Often, the same factory will produce garments for expensive brands and discounters. The difference in price is about garment quality, design, rents and advertisements but rarely about fair production.

Even the fair trade label cannot guarantee 100 percent of fair production because it applies to only part of the production process. However, it is a start. The Fair Wear Foundation is also a step in the right direction. The organisation performs spontaneous and unannounced supplier checks of its member companies.

The Clean Clothes Campaign criticised the brands for letting “such heavy loss of life [happen] once again. Brands must now come forward, ensure emergency steps are taken and pay without delay into a compensation fund for the victims and their families. They must also commit to prevent future disasters,” said a CCC spokesperson. The organisation is pushing heavily for all brands and retailers buying from Bangladesh to immediately sign and implement the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.

Image: Earlier protests in Dhaka / Derek Blackadder

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