Building collapses in South Asia are not unusual. But the case of the Rana Plaza disaster has drawn attention to some of the causes. Buildings are erected on the wrong kind of land, often wetlands, poor quality materials are used, or extra floors are added without a license. These violations are well known, and not confined to fly-by-night operators such as Mr Rana, now languishing in jail; indeed the headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association was constructed illegally, according to the Dhaka High Court.
A common reaction in the UK media and from NGOs has been to focus anger on brands sourcing from Bangladesh. But the view in Dhaka is rather different. Newspapers here have concentrated almost exclusively on the failure by government agencies to implement the law on occupational safety and health (OSH) and the building code. This in turn is blamed on the nexus between garment factory owners and politicians - sometimes the same people.
According to the 2008 building law, any new structure, for any purpose, has to obtain an occupancy certificate from a government agency before it can be used; only six certificates have been issued since 2008, although it is estimated 4,000 – 5,000 new buildings come up every year.
This industrial scale of law breaking is staggering. Many factories are older than six years, but many are not. Thousands of social audits have been carried out in Bangladesh garment factories in the last decade; surely the auditors must have asked about the occupancy certificates? Or indeed flagged up design failures that could lead to fire spreading rapidly? I doubt it. Most social auditors lack in depth knowledge of health and safety issues and rely on a tick box approach. They can spot a blocked fire exit or a first aid box with a few things missing, but an understanding of controlling hazards at source or the hierarchy of control, key concepts in OSH, is lacking.
But a blame game is not going to bring back to life the 1,126 workers killed in the Rana Plaza tragedy so far, though the toll will doubtless be higher by the time you read this.
The focus of British companies using factories in Bangladesh should be: how to prevent future loss of life?
It would be a big mistake to hope that the agreement brokered by the ILO will have much impact. This provides for a revision of the labour law to allow for freedom of association and the appointment of hundreds of new labour inspectors. If I was a betting man, I would put the chances of that happening at 100/1. A general election is due in Bangladesh early next year and the minds of politicians will be focused on that, not on the passing of labour laws or building safety.
There is a flurry of activity and the understaffed government agencies are being allowed to do their job, for a change. 243 factories have been found “risky” according to the fire services in Dhaka and Chittagong; and a Minimum Wages Board has been formed. The real concern of the government and factory owners is the threat of trade sanctions from the USA. We’ve been here before. When the crisis has passed, it will be business as usual.
So it’s up to the buyers, and British companies who really want to make a difference are going to have to go beyond their comfort zone. A key factor in both the Tazreen fire last year and the Rana Plaza disaster was that workers knew there was a problem and did not want to carry on working, but were compelled to do so. A fundamental right in international labour law is the right to withdraw from work when there is imminent and serious danger (ILO Convention 155, article 13 if you really want to know). At Tazreen, the fire alarms were ringing, but the supervisors told the workers to ignore them and carry on working. At Rana Plaza, everybody could see the cracks, but the factory owners told the workers to come into the building, or else.
That right, to withdraw from dangerous work, can only be seriously exercised where workers have the confidence to do so. That normally means having a trade union. The evidence is plentiful that the presence of a trade union makes workplaces safer (there is a handy summary in a TUC report "The Union Effect" published in 2011).
We are not going to get unionisation in Bangladesh garment factories any time soon, unfortunately. Until then, one avenue for workers' voice would be the participation committees (PCs), which already exist under Bangladesh Labour Law (section 205). One of the topics which the law mandates the committees to discuss is health and safety. At the moment, almost all participation committees are selected by management, not elected by workers, but the limited evidence we have shows that where workers are able to elect their own representatives, their confidence to raise concerns increases. PCs are not a substitute for trade unions, but proper elections, independently supervised, and off site training for the elected worker PC members, conducted by qualified trainers, would be a start.
British companies would do well to look at the example of KiK, the German discount clothing retailer which was using Ali Enterprises in Karachi, where 289 workers were killed in a fire last September. KiK signed an agreement last December in which they gave $250,000 to the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research to promote workers’ rights in that country. They grasped the fact that without workers’ rights and workers’ voice, disasters like Ali Enterprises, Tazreen and Rana Plaza will occur again.
Stirling Smith is an independent consultant working for a number of companies, including some ETI members. He is a former official of the ILO, covering health and safety in South Asia and is an ETI trainer. He wrote this while in Dhaka.
Views posted on this blog do not constitute those of ETI.