One year on, an inescapable lesson for the world’s leading garment retailers from the building collapse in Dhaka in April 2013 is to take a broader view on the enforcement of labour standards across supply chains. For it is the total absence of safety measures that has stood out above all as the single most critical factor behind the collapse of the eight-storeyed building in which more than 1,000 workers were killed. Global big brands have over the years shown greater sensitivity on the ethical implications of exploiting child labour, thanks to the pressure of public opinion in North America and Western Europe. A rise in school enrolments during this period across the developing world may have been an indirect fallout of removing children from many hazardous occupations. But the catastrophe last year in the world’s second largest garment exporting country may have called into question the somewhat narrow understanding of the aspects that constitute unfair trade practices. Given the combustible nature of cotton and most other synthetic fibres, the comprehensive lack of safety regulation may explain the recurrence of fires in recent years in garment factories in Bangladesh, which number over 5,000. The official report after the April 2013 incident in fact suggested that the tragedy was waiting to happen. The approach of the European Union and the United States to restrict their preferential trade measures after the gruesome incident can at best be described as reactive. This is especially the case considering that they are the two largest markets that source garments from Bangladesh.
The 2013 tragedy also exposed legal lacunae that have hampered the effective functioning of trade unions and the protection of workers. While the government has introduced amendments to labour laws, factory owners are said to be retaliating against the assertion of the rights of workers to organise. Such a hostile approach can only prove detrimental to the long-term interests of this sector and the entire economy of Bangladesh. The legally-binding safety accord signed by 125 largely European retailers after the April 2013 incident is undoubtedly significant. However, survivors of the disaster continue to face a bleak scenario as less than 40 per cent has been realised to the targeted contributions to the fund chaired by the International Labour Organisation for relief and rehabilitation. The task before the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is to enforce better inspection, monitoring and compliance with overall safety regulation and to act decisively against vested interests. That would serve the larger interest of greater stability, which is no small consideration for a growing economy.