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The Rupp Report: Cheap Textiles Paid For With Human Lives

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

From the early 1960s on, sewing machines were always one of the preferred instruments for the industrialization of a country. When it came to giving a new stimulus to a country, "industrialization" was the magic word: The saying "Give them a sewing machine, then the recovery begins" was heard everywhere. Mostly, these sewing machines were purchased by charity organizations or development funds. With a lot of fanfare, the donations were made to the "poor" people so that they could make a living. Thus, industry, especially the garment industry, moved slowly eastward until it caused a tremendous boom in China, which became the world's leading textile-producing country.

Dependence And Bad Image
The end of this story and the problems are well-known among the insiders of the textile and clothing industry; however, most remain silent for the sake of profit. The consequences in these countries led to a complete shift in the social structure: a large exodus from rural provinces began toward the cities that became more and more crowded. The result was a new form of dependency. Not least from this development, the textile industry is suffering more and more from a bad image regarding child labor, low wages and other issues. Now, this development has reached a new, sad climax.

Ignored Risks
The collapse last week of a building complex on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, was the worst industrial accident in the history of the country. Nearly 400 bodies were recovered, and more than 2,400 people were rescued and sent to hospitals with injuries. The building in the industrial area of Savar was occupied by five textile mills, a bank and several shops. Most victims were textile workers.

The disaster could have been prevented with a little caution: Police said they had ordered the evacuation of the building due to cracks in the walls before the collapse, but factory owners ignored the warning. Already the day before, cracks appeared on the facade, and the building had been evacuated. But the owners intimidated the workers the next day to return to the factories; a short time later, the building collapsed. At the time, more than 3,000 people were working in the building.

How is this possible? Because the textile industry is a major source of income in the country, the government closes its eyes when greedy factory owners disregard safety regulations. After the collapse, two managers and two engineers were arrested.

No Building Permit
Local media reported the owner of Rana Plaza, an influential businessman, built the eight-story building without approval from the responsible authorities in 2007. Thanks to his relationships, he had received a green light for the project from the mayor of Savar, although the mayor was not entitled to grant permission. The production facilities were located in the upper floors, which were built illegally, police said. The customers of the textile manufacturers include several retail chains in Europe and North America.

Apparently, the building was built on marshland that had previously been filled with makeshift concrete. The mayor justified his actions by saying that building permits would have taken too much time to complete, and Bangladesh's booming textile industry is dependent on rapid expansion (!).

Government Support
However, it seems that all governments had supported the process with tax breaks and duty exemptions. In addition, they had deliberately looked in the other way when different rules were violated. Textile entrepreneurs are among the main donors to both big parties, and some of them have even entered into politics themselves and sit now in Parliament and the Cabinet.

The head of a task force that inspected the textile factories after the disaster, said that half of the premises are not safe. The main problem is that entrepreneurs who disobey rules would hardly ever face the consequences. There is no lack of laws, but a lack of will to implement them. The responsible authority that should have inspected 500 factories in 2012 had just 18 officers available to do the job. In addition, according to rumors, the influential textile barons would regularly be warned before inspections.

Now, the residents are raising their voices with some violent protests against the working conditions. Last Friday, thousands of textile workers in Savar and the nearby industrial areas were demonstrating against a lack of safety standards in their factories. Meanwhile, the death toll rose to 341. From Friday evening to Saturday morning, 47 still-buried people were recovered, days after the accident. In total, more than 2,400 people had been rescued or escaped alive from the debris up to Saturday. Observers hope that the disaster will force the government to take drastic actions, not least because elections are approaching year-end.

In the West, the terrible news from Bangladesh seems to have changed the climate, and people are starting to rethink. The story is well-known: In search of cheap production locations, the major European and American apparel and retail companies have ignored the grievances for a long time. However, owing to growing pressure from consumers, some companies have started to review the working conditions in their supplier's factories.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina from Bangladesh has promised to track down and severely punish the responsible people. She has also pledged to improve the working conditions in textile factories. The Bangladeshis have certainly heard a lot of empty promises in this regard from their political leaders. The latest disaster is just one in a long series of similarly careless crimes. Hundreds of workers have lost their lives in recent years in collapses, fires and mass panics. In November last year, 112 people were killed in a fire at a textile factory in Dhaka. The windows were barred and the emergency exits were locked.

Most Important Industry At What Price?
The apparel industry has grown in the last three decades; it is the money machine for Bangladesh. It generates US$20 billion annually - some 80 percent of export earnings - and it employs some three million workers. Extremely low wages and dangerous working conditions have enabled the country to produce apparel for knockdown prices and to eliminate competition. But this recovery can hardly be paid with the price of human lives. Time will tell how this situation affects the global clientele, because the increased awareness of the consumers has become indisputable. And, it will be interesting to see how social media will organize to challenge purchasers of these textiles, and eventually change this unacceptable situation. Here, the last word will not yet be spoken for a long time.

April 30, 2013