The garment factory collapse in Savar in Bangladesh is a parable of globalisation. The visceral images needed to make world headlines are there, as dead and broken bodies are pulled from the rubble for a fourth and fifth day. If there are any more survivors, as the tapping sounds of life fade out, they will have endured 100 hours trapped under the concrete and steel of the profit machine of a political youth leader – which description, by the way, translates in Bangladesh as ‘thug’.
Stories of heroism and agony and the criminal apathy of officials stirred up yet another round of mass violence in Dhaka. Factories were attacked and inevitably, someone died. This is with the secular-Islamic clash surrounding the Shahbag movement for justice for war crimes still bubbling in the background. There is a domestic politics angle to Rana Plaza, including the political lessons of the 2011 minimum wage struggle, and acute pressures on garments factories to deliver after political unrest slowed production and delivery since March. Yet the story outside Bangladesh, complete with labels from the Spanish chain El Corte Inglés dangling over the rescue teams’ heads, is all about how globalisation did this. Brand globalisation has been permanently damaged.
The facts are plain enough. Young women on low pay sew clothes in a poor country to sell to young women on low pay in a rich country. The key factor is the lowness of both their pay, which fuels the ease with which safety is sacrificed and the relentlessness of the demand for cheap clothes in a world society with powerfully consumerist values. The case is testimony to the effects of globalisation:
- Demand for cheap new fashion
- Regulations ignored because of pressures to deliver goods in time; ‘lead times’ are long in Bangladesh compared to China or India, so there is a premium on speed and volume. (Not all businesses in the building made their staff come in that day: BRAC Bank, the formal banking arm of the Bangladesh-owned BRAC group, did not open because of the warnings)
- Tough times, with austerity in the North and world prices high and rising; people cannot afford not to work, is the message from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project which includes research in garments workers’ communities in Dhaka: workers would have had no real choice but to show up
- Low pay and poor safety records, reflecting that the Bangladesh Readymade Garments (RMG) industry is not very productive: it has been competitive because protected by preferential trade agreements and profitable because of the large amounts of surplus labour in the nimble fingers of young women.
The lesson here is that there is ultimately no accountability in the global economy. The factory owners have been arrested and may do a little time. But this is unsatisfactory, when Primark and others gain the benefits of these pressures on workers’ lives, without paying the costs. When workers in the global export chains, mostly young women, have serious grievances about their work conditions, who is listening? How can working in the global market mean you lose your inalienable human rights to safety? How then can the human rights of global export workers be assured? ‘Compliance’ is not enough; there must now be enforcement. Until the public authorities can supply this, the workers will continue to revolt.
 See Mushtaq Khan, ‘Vulnerabilities in Market-led Growth Strategies and Challenges for Governance’, 2008. http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/PDF/Outputs/Nem_Misc/Growth-Vulnerabilities.pdf. This is common enough in the global export sectors; see Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson, ‘“Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers”: An Analysis of Women’s Employment in Third World Export Manufacturing’, Feminist Review, 7 (1981), 87–107.
Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.
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