OVER the last year, accidents in garment factories in Pakistan and Bangladesh have exposed not only the hazardous conditions in which garment industry workers toil, but also the human price of cheap clothes sold in Western capitals.
The list begins with the fatal accident at Ali Enterprises, situated in Karachi’s Baldia Town. On Sept 11 last year, a fire swept through the factory, killing over 250 workers. In November 2012 in Bangladesh, a fire at Tazreen Fashion killed over 100 people.
In April this year, also in Bangladesh, more than 1,000 workers perished when Rana Plaza, housing several garment factories, collapsed. This is reckoned as the worst industrial accident since 1984’s Bhopal tragedy in India.
Together, these headline-grabbing tragedies highlight the wretched, slave-like conditions in which employees are forced to work to feed the insatiable demand for global clothing brands.
From the rubble of the Baldia factory were found, among others, labels of German clothes retailer KiK, which has admitted it was a major bulk buyer of Ali Enterprises’ products since 2007. In Bangladesh, given its large garment industry, labels of various major high street retailers were found.
These tragedies also highlight a number of emerging trends in the growing global garments industry in relation to working conditions, workplace safety, labour rights and transparency of supply chains.
For example, in recent years the global apparel industry has begun to source its supply from South and Southeast Asian countries, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as Vietnam and Cambodia due to rising Chinese labour and export costs.
The Bangladeshi labour cost — 32 cents per hour — is one-fifth of China’s hourly labour cost. The Pakistani hourly labour cost stands at 50 cents while the labour cost in Cambodia is less than that in Bangladesh. These figures have helped make Bangladesh by far the largest exporter in the region.
Bangladesh’s garment exports hover around $18-20 billion, making up 78pc of the country’s exports and contributing 17pc to GDP. Comparative figures for Pakistan, according to the Pakistan Readymade Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association, are 59pc of total exports, adding 8.5pc to the country’s GDP.
In most cases the global clothing industry has been ignoring safety standards in a bid to maximise profits on the back of abundant and cheap labour.
Even the current audit-focused social responsibility model has been found to be too inadequate to address the complex issues of health and safety as seen in Walmart’s audit of Bangladesh factories. Similar concerns have been raised about German textile retailer KiK’s audit of Ali Enterprises.
In some cases, even global clothing brands are unaware of the identity of the factories that supply them given the widespread practice of further outsourcing down the supply chains.
The woeful working conditions in the international garments industry exposed by these tragedies, have been made worse by global chains’ inadequate inspection regime and lax government oversight of labour laws and health and safety regulations applicable to factories in their jurisdiction.
However, as well as exposing the flaws in the global supply chain and lax oversight mechanism at both the governmental and global level, the tragedies have also laid bare different responses to the Bangladeshi and Pakistani cases.
While global clothing giants have got together to redress the flaws in the supply chain in the case of Bangladesh, no comparable concerted action has been initiated in relation to Pakistan (though KiK has set aside money by way of compensation as a result of aggressive lobbying by labour rights groups).
Part of the reason for increased focus on Bangladesh is its relatively bigger garments’ export sector. Two alliances of global clothing giants have been formed to address structural and rights issues in Bangladesh.
At the national level in Bangladesh, the owner of Rana Plaza is being actively proceeded against according to the law of the land despite being very close to the ruling party.
In contrast, the charge of murder against the owner of Ali Enterprises is yet to be framed. Unlike Bangladesh, there seems to be no concerted follow-up of the case where the Baldia factory fire is concerned.
As the first anniversary of the Baldia Town incident approaches, it is worth revisiting some of the lessons thrown up by the event, brilliantly analysed in a report titled Fatal Fashion jointly compiled by the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations published in March 2013.
Here are some of the lessons which, if imbibed wholly, could prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy.
The Pakistani government should immediately ratify International Labour Organisation conventions relevant to freedom of association, the right to a safe and healthy work environment and the right to employment injury benefits.
This would pave the way for worker unionisation and better working conditions and structured compensation packages in case of industrial accidents.
The government should also put in place stringent labour inspection regimes. Discontinued labour inspections should be reinstituted in order to prevent tragedies resulting from structural flaws, blocked exits and overcrowded workplaces as seen in the aforementioned industrial tragedy.
There is a need to implement the minimum wage in all industries. In this regard, the PML-N’s electoral pledge to increase minimum wage to Rs15,000 should be immediately translated into reality. Workers were reportedly paid as little as Rs7,000 per month at the Baldia factory for longer than stipulated hours.
Lastly, all businesses in Pakistan need to be made aware of UN guiding principles and the protect, respect and remedy framework. This should be followed up with stringent oversight of the businesses’ adherence to the UN framework.
The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst.