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Bangladesh disaster 'could happen again' - but can we help?

Oxfam says that about 90 per cent of high rise buildings in Dhaka, where last week’s tragic building collapse occurred, are not built even to local standards.

LAST WEEK’S BUILDING collapse disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh, led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people – but it wasn’t the first such collapse, and it won’t be the last.

That is according to Oxfam, which says that the lax building controls in Bangladeshi garment factories “will not go away until western retailers and the country’s government agree to work towards improved working conditions”.

The garment workers who died in this recent event were making clothes for the Western market – clothes that are cheap, affordable, and available to almost everyone. The rails and rails of easily-forgotten-about clothing in your favourite high street store could have come from this very place.

File. Pic: David Goldman/AP/Press Association Images


Oxfam Ireland Chief Executive Jim Clarken said that Bangladesh can raise standards and improve conditions for its workers without threatening its competitiveness, which has been a worry for the companies who use factories in the country.

He said that 90 per cent of garment factories “are not built to local standards, let alone international building standards that would be expected in an earthquake-prone country like Bangladesh”.

Western retailers must insist on higher standards of the factories they work in. But the government must do the same.

Members of the government have significant financial interests in this sector, said Clarken, adding that “there is a clear financial incentive for them to give the industry as much of a free pass as possible”. “This must be stopped,” he asserted.

Oxfam is working to reduce the risk of disasters by working with architects and municipal authorities to improve building standards, and by working with communities to prepare themselves for disasters.

It says that with a major earthquake “overdue”, it is concerned that this terrible tragedy will be repeated on a far greater scale.

Common occurrence

Even before last week’s building collapse, more than 300 Bangladeshi factory workers had lost their lives since 2000. Meanwhile, thousands have been injured in factory fires.

A Bangladeshi man covers his nose and sits near the bodies of victims of a building collapse at a makeshift morgue in Savar, near Dhaka. Pic: AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous

The government raised the monthly minimum wage from 1662 takas (around €15) to 3000 takas (about €30) in 2010, but Oxfam is campaigning for a living wage.

It is calling for the minimum wage to be increased to 5000 takas a month (around €50).

Oxfam is a founder member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and also the Clean Clothes Campaign. The latter says over one million people have signed petitions calling for brands who source items from Bangladesh to sign the legally-binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The ETI said that the building collapse and fire in a second factory

[A]ll serve as yet another call to action for the Bangladesh industry, government, retailers, worker representatives and NGOs to work together, to raise workplace safety standards across the country’s garment sector.

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Does consumer pressure work?

What consumers want to know is if they can put pressure on retailers, and if this pressure will pay off.

Here’s Oxfam’s answer:

Yes. Last year, Phillips Van Heusen Corporation (PVH) who owns both Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein has signed a historic agreement to protect Bangladeshi garment workers from dangerous working conditions.

It wants supply chains independently audited and says that self-regulation doesn’t work, and that national legislation is not always enough.

Oxfam recommends that companies pay workers a living wage, and are transparent. It wants workers to be able to join unions, and collectively bargain. It also calls for purchasing practices which allow suppliers to respect labour standards, and that if factories close, workers should receive their full entitlement to severance pay and other entitlements.

These may all seem like simple things, and things that those of us in the Western world take for granted, but Bangladeshi garment workers, who may have made the clothes you wear, are not entitled to all of these currently.

They face, says Oxfam, “some of the most precarious working conditions and lowest wages in the world” – and if there is the potential for another such collapse, there could be even worse in store for them.

The pressure on businesses and governments to begin making immediate improvements to these conditions seems to be growing day by day.

Read: Woman found alive 17 days after Bangladesh building collapse>

Read: Bangladesh collapse: Death toll passes 1,000 as stacks of bodies found>

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