Friday , June 18 2021

Big brands need Bangladesh workers

Bangladesh is deep into its second month of a coronavirus lockdown that has shuttered schools, public transportation and most workplaces. But thanks to lobbying by the country’s garment manufacturers, millions of factory workers are still on the job every day — even though many have complained of pay cuts, late wages and inadequate Covid protections.
Eight years after the notorious collapse of the Rana Plaza apparel manufacturing complex, which killed more than 1,100 people, Bangladesh’s garment industry was supposed to be doing better. Following the incident, global apparel brands entered into safety agreements with local factories that made real progress. The only problem is that one accord expired in 2018 and the other is expected to end on May 31.
That timing couldn’t be worse. With factories struggling to stay afloat because of falling apparel demand, and the government able to offer only limited support, garment workers are already shouldering significant economic uncertainty. Without help from the global brands and retailers that sell their handiwork, these workers could well lose the hard-earned health and safety improvements that the agreements guaranteed — and face the risk of another disaster.
Bangladesh’s garment-export economy is something of a modern miracle. In 1978, the country was primarily agricultural;
its garment industry amounted to nine factories and about $1 million in export revenue. Over the next 30 years, a combination of savvy entrepreneurship, favourable trade agreements and cost-conscious foreign retailers proved transformative. By 2020, annual garment exports were worth $33.6 billion, the country was home to more than 4,000 factories and the industry employed some 4.4 million workers.
Underlying this success, however, were some ugly realities. At the time of the Rana Plaza collapse, the entry-level minimum wage was less than $40 a month, and workplaces were notoriously dangerous. In the eight years before the incident, more than 1,000 garment workers had been killed on the job. None of that seemed to make Bangladesh any less attractive to global apparel brands. Rana Plaza — which supplied clothes for top European brands such as Benetton — changed everything. Consumers who had never questioned why their clothing prices declined steadily over the decades were forced to think twice.
The apparel industry, fearing a consumer revolt, rushed to find a fix. What it settled on were two agreements that set the terms for inspecting, repairing and upgrading factories to reasonable safety standards.

—Bloomberg

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