Top 13 In 2013, #9: Textiles Tragedy In Bangladesh
Between December 9 and December 21, we'll be counting down the 13 biggest stories on Manufacturing.net throughout 2013. From pig problems (see below), to Tesla's on fire, and being held captive in China, we'll be looking into just why these stories resonated with readers here and elsewhere. For the full list, updated daily at 1:00pm EST until the 21st, visit the Top 13 In 2013 page.
Coming off the heels of #11, in which we examined some of the industrial disasters in 2013, and OSHA’s response, there is one tragic event, in the country of Bangladesh, that captivated and horrified Manufacturing.net’s readers. On April 24, the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in Savar collapsed, leaving hundreds dead and many more trapped within the rubble. Survivors said the building had cracked severely the day before, and that police had ordered an evacuation, but there was no action on the factory’s management. They opted to keep the plant open, with more than 2,000 people working at the time of the collapse.
Over the next few weeks, the death toll continued to ominously rise, with the initial count of 87 ballooning into the hundreds. Even then, Bangladesh's finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said he didn’t think the accident was "really serious,” just after the 500th body was pulled from the debris. He insisted that his government had taken steps to punish those who ran the Savar plant, and would work to prevent similar events from happening in the future.
As search efforts for survivors ended in May 13, with a death toll of 1,129, many on the ground were left wondering what went wrong, and why direct police orders were ignored. Around the world, more consumers became aware of the vast supply chain that produced many of the clothes that they wore on a daily basis.
The truth was that those workers were a minor part in a massive, global network of companies working through third-parties and suppliers to produce something as simple as a T-shirt. Through many layers of collaborations, companies like Wal-Mart, Gap and Sweden’s H&M, used, and continue to use, Bangladeshi labor at an incredibly affordable rate.
Just how cheap is it? The minimum wage for unskilled workers is 3,000 takas ($38) a month, one of the lowest in the world. And because of the complexity of the supply chain that leads a company like Wal-Mart to Bangladesh, they get to distance themselves from the labor strife and the inevitable fallout, such as the Savar collapse itself.
Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, said, “Improvement is not happening. The multinational companies claim a lot of things. They claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system. But yet these things keep happening."
These labor groups had proposed a new system that would ditch government inspections, which are infrequent and manned by corrupt officials. An independent inspectorate would oversee all factories in Bangladesh, and hold powers to shut down unsafe facilities via a legally-binding contract between a company like Wal-Mart, its many subcontractors and local unions. It asked for funding contributions from each company of up to $500,000 per year.
All of the companies involved quickly ditched the plan in 2011, because it was legally binding and costly. A few companies, like Gap, said they had hired their own inspectors to ensure safety on the ground in Bangladesh.
On the ground, wages are going to rise — 77 percent, from 3,000 to 5,300 taka, which equates to $68 a month. But for many, that’s not enough — certain groups are demanding a minimum of 8,114 takas. To get what they want, they’re protesting wildly, closing down hundreds of garment factories and even committing arson to gut one of the factories.
For a company like Wal-Mart, the last six months have been a lesson in how even minor facets of a much larger and more complex supply chain can cause great headaches at home if not managed properly. They’re most certainly making moves to not only ensure better safety at low-cost garment factories in the future, but also to protect their own reputation.
At the end of the day, the biggest part of this is the loss of human life, and the Savar collapse has landed on the infamous list of industrial accidents that have killed more than 1,000, which includes Bhopal and the explosion of a ship in the Halifax harbor. With any luck, all the varied efforts on different angles will prevent a similar tragedy in the years to come.