On Thursday, June 27, 2013, US President Barack Obama announced the end of trade privileges with Bangladesh over safety concerns and working conditions of its factories (Shah, 2013). Bangladesh will be suspended from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). The GSP is a program which promotes economic growth in developing countries by providing duty-free entry of up to 5,000 products when imported from one of the 127 (now 126) designated beneficiary countries and territories (U.S. Trade Representative, 2013).
Bangladesh is the world’s second-leading exporter of clothing; China is the top exporter. There are more than 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, processing orders for nearly all the world’s tops retailers and brands (Yardley, 2013), earning approximately $20 billion annually (Alam, 2012). According to a New York Times articles, Bangladesh has become an export powerhouse as it has the world’s lowest garment worker wages. Between 2006 and 2009, 414 garment workers were killed in at least 213 factory fires (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2013). Another 165 workers were killed in four separate fires between 2009, and on November 25, 2012, over 100 workers were killed at a fire at the seven-story Tazreen Fashions-run factory.
Sixty-nine bodies were recovered from the second floor of the Tazreen Factory; most of the victims had been trapped inside the factory due to the fact that the facility had no emergency means of egress. Despite there being three stairwells, the fire started on the ground floor, preventing workers from being able to leave. Workers who found refuge on the roof were rescued, and emergency responders stated that if there had been at least one emergency exit through the factory to the outside, the causalities would have been less (Alam, 2012). The devastation of the factory fires between 2006 and 2012, would not be the worst disaster Bangladesh would experience.
Rana Plaza, located in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, houses fives garment factories. The building employs several thousand workers, many of which work on illegally constructed upper floors. Regular power failures created the need for large power generators, that were so large they would shake the building when turned on. Cracks on the building and extensive shaking caused workers to leave the building on April 23. An engineer was called and warned the owners and supervisors that the structure was unsafe; the warning went unheeded and workers were told to report to work the next day. On April 24, after turning on a generator, Rana Plaza buckled and collapsed (Yardley, 2013).
Nearly 1,200 people were killed in the collapse of Rana Plaza, the worst and deadliest industrial accident in the history of the garment industry (Associated Press, 2013). A 400 page report of the building collapse, blamed the mayor for granting construction approvals, as well as recommending negligence charges against the owners. The building “ . . .was constructed with substandard materials and in blatant disregard for building codes” (Yardley, 2013). The Associated Press reported that the eight-story plaza was built on swampy ground with extremely poor quality construction materials, and powered with vibrating equipment. The head of the committee stated that a portion of the building had been constructed on land that had been water before being filled with rubbish. Poor quality iron rods and cement had been used in construction; the owners had permission to construct the top two floors, illegally to rent out. Other reports note that the building was to be a five –floor facility; the upper three floors were added illegally.
The reviewing committee recommended life prison sentences for the owners, in lieu of the maximum seven-year sentences the charges carry. Bangladesh workers make as little as $38 US each month. These disasters and the subsequent investigation into the Rana Plaza collapse, and the fires at other factories have prompted much discussion and outrage to the conditions these factories are subjecting workers to. As long as there are brands that send the manufacturing orders, these sweat shops will continue to exploit workers and subject them to unsafe working conditions. According to LaborRights.org (2013), 60 percent of the 5,000 Bangladesh factories lack adequate fire-fighting tools, and many do not have emergency exits. Seventy-eight percent of Bangladesh’s exports come from the garment industry, which also accounts for 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The size and importance of the garment industry to the continued growth of the country is vital.
Trade Unions, which would normally fight for workers’ rights are fragmented, with many small organizations (Trade Union Congress, 2013). According to TUC, Bangladesh has cornered the market on low wage garment production. The past near decade of devastation and destruction has led many workers to get organized and fight to achieve an 80 percent pay increase. Globalization has led many manufacturers to look to other countries as source of inexpensive labor, despite the high prices charges for designer garments. The owners are looking to make as many garments for the least amount of money in order to secure and maintain a manufacturing contract. Unions are one way to help improve the conditions of third-world country workers, but as long as there are manufacturers who will support the process in order to make more money, sweatshops will be a scab on the industry.