We are facing another 24 of the month, horrific day for the garment workers in Bangladesh. Fifteen months have passed after Rana Plaza disaster that housed five garments factories, killed 1135 and injured thousands on 24 April 2013. Even after so many days, main concerns of workers conditions have changed little. We have heard loud promises, but little progress on the ground. There are many initiatives not addressing real problems on the ground.
Unbelievable becomes true that even after more than one year no compensation policy has been formulated yet. Therefore nobody from nearly four thousand families has received compensation. The only money they received are from Bangladesh government, Primark, individuals and some agencies is charity support and health care facilities for severely injured. Many of the alive workers who lost their job have not gotten any job yet despite many promises from the BGMEA and others. Sufferings of the unemployed, injured are increasing with nobody to look after. The Prime Ministers Office is sitting over more than Tk 1 billion, collected in the name of Rana plaza victims, but has not handed over the money to them yet.
The production and export are going on as usual. According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), total export has maintained a double digit growth during July‐March FY2014 (11.9 per cent). And "in the 12 months that ended in March from the period a year earlier Bangladesh's clothing exports jumped 16 percent, to $23.9 billion" (New York Times, April 28, 2014).
The Government has failed to do their duty; also there is gross failure of the BGMEA and global brands in implementing their promises.
Governments from Dhaka to Washington: What are they doing?
Although the Government of Bangladesh did little to change the conditions of the garments industry, the owners succeeded to earn more from the public money. Different export incentives over the years have provided up to 5% cash credits on the basis of total export volume. In January 2014, the finance minister announced a 0.25% cash incentive based on the freight on board value of export of all types of RMG items. Number of sales contracts is considered the basis for credit-worthiness. Furthermore, duty on source was reduced from 0.8% to 0.3% (TIB, 2014), only this decision add BDT 20 billion benefit for the owner in single year. But the government has been showing its callousness to hand over even donation money of BDT1.2 billion to the workers, deposited to Prime Minister's fund by different individual and groups for the victim workers, even in one long year and three months.
On the other hand in a year after Rana Plaza disaster, the US government earned at least US$800 million as duty imposed on imported garments from Bangladesh. It did nothing to make the US brands accountable, but suspended GSP from Bangladesh to punish BD garment owners where the garments' have never enjoyed GSP facility! On the contrary it has been a victim of discriminatory and high tariff barrier from the US authority.
According to Oxfam USA, an average tariff rate on imports into the US is 1.7%. France, UK and Saudi Arabia pay less than 1%. But for Bangladesh it is on average 16%. Bangladesh pays nearly 60% of all the tariff revenue by the US collected from the LDCs. Even International Monetary Fund (IMF) earlier admitted that, "poor countries like Bangladesh — face the highest effective tariffs, on average, four or five times those faced by the richest economies" in the USA.
Therefore, not only the action on GSP was misleading, it was fraudulent too. If the US accepts WTO principles and stop discriminating and protectionism, Bangladesh would have more leverage to incentivize change within the industry. Rather it has been used to pursue other agendas of the US. In November 2013, the governments of Bangladesh and the USA signed TICFA (Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement), 'to find a platform to negotiate for reinstating GSP facility'!
International initiatives: Accord and alliance
After Rana Plaza disaster, citizens around the world demonstrated their discontent and anger on the conditions of workers in this billion dollar industry. In response to citizens' protest, we see some initiatives by global brands and retailers in garments importing countries. Most important are the formation of the 'Accord' and the 'Alliance'.
While the Accord is a legally binding agreement between Companies and trade unions, the Alliance is not legally binding and has no role for trade unions and workers and worker representatives. However, the Accord and the Alliance serve very similar functions in Bangladesh: they create a short-term inspection and monitoring system among some selected factories, 'conduct trainings for management and workers on fire and building safety, and provide some level of resources to their primary suppliers for remediation efforts'. It is interesting to note that, supplying companies of these facilities are already having sales show in Bangladesh.
These initiatives, however, do not cover the issue of compensation. International Labour Organization (ILO) has taken initiative to organize funds for compensation. Based on the compensation estimates for the victims of Spectrum Garments using the benchmark of ILO, an approximate total of US$74.5 million has been estimated to be required to compensate the victims of Rana Plaza. A single approach has been established in accordance with the ILO Convention 121 and the Bangladesh Law to compensate 3600 Rana Plaza victims. ILO targeted to organize $40 million, but that has not achieved yet!
Irresponsible global chain
Many companies looked at all fatal 'accidents' discussed above as a brief 'PR disaster', but these leave permanent trauma for the thousands of workers families. In all considerations, national and multinational both enterprises have failed to uphold their responsibilities, but they did make their profit more than before.
Therefore in investigating global chain, we find number of groups in Bangladesh and in many western countries getting fatter over the value created by workers of garment industry in Bangladesh. All of them must bear responsibility for failing to secure a minimum standard in the factories.
Madness for more and more profit by groups from home and abroad, without caring its costs for the workers created these horrific experiences of Rana and Tazreen. The global net of injustice allows factory owners, the BGMEA, agents and global retailers to avoid responsibility, even after murder of thousands. This shows a failed system of accountability in global scale, from Savar to New York.
Anu Muhammad is a teacher, economist, researcher and member secretary of Oil Gas Protection Committee.