Lessons from tragedies: Groups unite to promote safer guidelines for outsourced garment workers

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

abandoned factory outsourcing facility
Tragedies have recently marred the manufacturing sector of the outsourcing industry as several catastrophes were reported in Bangladesh, China, and India in recent years. Yet perhaps the most cathartic incident of all could be attributed to the Rana Plaza rubble which claimed the lives of at least 1, 127 garment workers. Many believe that the tragedy touched even more lives as the injured toll piled up and rescuers, both volunteers and government-provided help, kept pitching in.

Ablaze dreams

The Rana Plaza collapse brought to mind the unjust practices implemented by big corporations to their outsourced partners in developing countries, such as Bangladesh. In this case, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) requested the tenants of the 8-storey building to evacuate the facility as multiple cracks were visible on its exterior. While some heeded the professional advice of BGMEA, more commercial units opted to ignore the warning, for fear of not fulfilling orders requested by Westerner shops.

Then disaster struck. Rana Plaza, which housed over 3,000 workers, collapsed. According to The Star, Rahima Begum, an employee at Ether Textiles refused to go back to work, but was threatened by an unnamed manager that the factory would withhold a month’s salary if the workers refused to go back to work. An hour after they were forced back into the factory, the lights went out, and the building collapsed.

As the number of casualties continued to rise, the nation pinned its hopes to the rescue of a young garments worker, Shaheena. Shaheena was trapped for over a hundred hours. She was initially found with three other women, but over time the voices of her colleagues fell silent. It was only Shaheena who continued to interact with the rescuers. The whole country was waiting for her rescue, a pivotal moment in the catastrophe that could make the difference between recovery and chaos.

Yet when just a single maneuver was needed to get Shaheena free, an unnamed civilian engineer stepped in. The engineer attempted to cut the rod that was trapping her. What happened next was pure chaos as the engineer’s efforts ignited a fire, which drove back the rescue team. Needless to say, the entire nation was infuriated.

Lobbying for better work environments

The Rana Plaza fire was not the first of its kind: in 2012, two fatal fires broke out in Bangladesh. One was the Tazreen Fashions Fire which had at least 112 victims. As a result, several Western brands were implicated.

Calls for reform resonated after the Tazreen fire; the reformists would not be denied justice for the Rana Plaza fire. As such, the Bangladesh Safety Accord was formed to promote more humane conditions for workers and generally improve the manufacturing industry. However, despite this very public cry for justice some brands could not be moved from their stands, to the point where they would not even compensate the families of the victims.

The future

Digital Journal reports of an “International Day of Action to End Deathtraps” which showcased the collaborated efforts of countless students, workers, and other community members in over 35 cities across the globe. The ‘Day of Action’ saw the groups picket and demonstrate in several major global cities.

One of the protestors, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which aims to build ‘sustainable power for working people’ by going ‘against the daily abuses of the global economic system to be a struggle against sweatshops,” urged many non-complaint corporations to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord, and be held liable for the lives of the victims. Yet the results of the Day of Action remain to be seen.

However, an important lesson could be derived from these tragedies. With the loss of thousands of workers, it is about time the public acknowledge the dangers posed by greedy corporations.Local groups will no longer be silenced as they fight for the rights of their workers. Similarly, outsourcing should be performed ethically to avoid tragedies such as the ones demonstrated above from ever occurring.

Photo credit: martin gonzalez on Flickr.