The deadly disaster that claimed over 1,100 lives in April hasn’t dented the growth of Bangladesh’s garment exports industry. Data out today show that exports for the fiscal year ended in June were up 11 percent on the year before, and garment exports, which account for 80% of overall exports, increased 13 percent, to more than $21.5 billion. Since the Rana Plaza tragedy, Bangladesh’s exports for the month of May were up 15 percent year-on-year, and 16 percent for June.
The responses to the tragedy have been largely symbolic. The US suspended trade benefits for Bangladesh, but the move is nothing but a slap on the wrist, since garments are not eligible for duty cuts. A coalition of 70 manufacturers, including H&M and Inditex (the owner of Zara), agreed to take steps to improve worker safety, but many including Walmart and Gap have shunned the deal and questioned the pact’s effectiveness. The Bangladesh government agreed to a European Union proposal to improve workers’ safety and uphold union rights, but its ability to regulate the industry that is the backbone of its economy and employs more than 4 million people is in doubt.
Wealthy factory owners have amassed political clout, and more than 30 of them are members of parliament. The labor laws are skewed in their favor and workers need a factory owner’s permission to start unions. U.S. congressman George Miller (Democrat-California), who recently visited Bangladesh, says workers “live in a system of reprisals where you could lose your job at any moment for joining a union. There are 160 million people in a country the size of Iowa, and most of them are looking for work, so you have no leverage.” He points out that out of 5,000 factories eligible for unions, only 29 have gotten approvals so far.
Widespread corruption and manpower shortages are also hurting efforts to improve worker safety. More than 1,000 workers died in factory fires or accidents from 1990 to 2012, but not a single owner was charged with any crime, according to sources cited by the New York Times. Factories deemed unsafe for use continue to operate. Dhaka’s development authority, which oversees more than a million structures in the city, has only 40 inspectors.
Clearly, a lot needs to be done to improve conditions in Bangladesh’s factories, but Bangladeshi authorities are already in a hurry to downplay the fatal accidents. The head of the government’s Export Promotion Bureau, Shuvhashish Bose, told the AFP that the disasters like the one in April “didn’t have much impact. They are scattered incidents.”