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To open the World’s Eyes Costs 1100 Lives – Reflections about the Tragic Savar Incident in Bangladesh

 

Raquib AHMED
University of Rajshahi
BANGLADESH
Email: raquib_ahmed(atnospam)yahoo.com


On 24th of April Bangladesh faced a rocking disaster which influenced the whole of the nation and the world very extensively due to Bangladesh’s active participation in the increasingly globalizing world of economic systems and businesses. More than 110 people died and not less than one thousand were injured in a single incidence. An 8 storied building where 4 garment factories and a market were located collapsed. Despite more than 2500 people were evacuated through very active and immediate participation of government’s various agencies a huge number of people died on the spot within seconds or had to suffer long hours, seeing dead coming. The majority of the victims were female and very young aged from 15 to 30. The tragic incident raised many
questions, not only to the efficiency of Bangladesh as a nation to handle the situation but also to the developed countries as a whole about their possible responsibilities in the context of the disaster.

 

Bangladesh has been facing coastal cyclones and inland floods every year since its geological history, but the damage has been significantly reduced in recent years because of the increase of mass level modern education, mass social awareness, government’s improved planning and coordination, western help, and above everything the development of science and technology. A simple and single feature is that data comes from regularly orbiting weather satellites to reach ground receivers and finally gets down to the coastal people in just minutes. A technical innovation that has a big impact and changed the lives of ordinary people significantly. The relevance is a far reaching as the micro credit system. Let us remember, more than one million people died from the
coastal cyclone and water surge in November 1970 in Bangladesh (that time it was East Pakistan) – perhaps the world’s largest single incidence to claim human victims. But the Savar tragedy has a different dimension of influence – it is the time and the way it is related to the global world.


Garment and apparel sector have started to grow since the early 80’s when labor costs increased dramatically mainly in Europe and in North America for many reasons such as changes in industrialization patterns and negative population growth. Parallel to that the matter of comparative economic advantage of production, focusing on sophisticated industries as major industrialization and environmental concerns have diverted few labor intense industries to shift from the global north to the global south. Bangladesh immediately picked up this sector for its quick recovery from economic setback resulted from the liberation war and separation from Pakistan. The plus points in favor of Bangladesh were the technological simplicity and comparatively low investment rates in
the sector as well as the availability of a local cheap labor force (particularly the younger female population). Prevailing extensive poverty supported the process. Up to now not less than 4.0 million workers are involved in the production of RMG (Ready MadeGarment) of which 60 percent are young females. For those the options to earn a living of their own helps to overcome gender inequality which is not realized yet due to continuous threats from fanatic religious sentiments. As the most important sector RMG revenues have reached 80 percent of Bangladesh’s national GDP. In the world RMG trade, Bangladesh ranks second behind China. Bangladesh is the major exporter of ready made garments to European countries, North American nations, Japan, Russia and to some selected countries in South America. It has even started to export ready made apparels to China and India. There is a strong indication that Bangladesh is moving towards gaining a branding status in the item of ready made apparels available in all western super markets which is an essential good in everybody’s everyday life. This is an important aspect of comparative economic advantage for the localization of industries in global partnership of production and consumption of goods. It is a challenge for Bangladesh to secure its position on the platforms of international markets. Unlike the colonial past of Bangladesh, efficient use of resources, relocation of production capability and the efficient environment management increasingly indicate the importance to improve and functionalize the whole chain of activity – from the producer (including its workers) up to the individual end consumer of every item. This is also a decisive component of globalization of trade in an expected holistic approach. More transparency
of the production-consumption chain is essential to bring about an increased awareness of multiple social aspects of globalization, minimizing regional political instability and reducing corruption which finally is capable to alleviate global poverty and finally to reduce terrorism.

 

I have just met one of my former students who is a German and very sensible. She told me that she has seen a blood stain on one of the trousers she has bought in a local supermarket. It is haunting her ever again. It was produced in Bangladesh. She visited Bangladesh and I took her to many garment industries. She knows the whole situation behind the production of garment and saw the poverty driven people. She was particularly touched by witnessing the wide-spread desperation of female workers. She also noticed our nation’s very high social commitment towards economic growth. She wants to throw her trousers out of her shelve to get rid of the bad feeling, but was unable to do so because she knows that Bangladesh’s young girls of her age prepared it with utmost sincerity and love for just few cents. Whereas they get nearly nothing for their
hard work. The overall benefit is taken by local factory owners, the multinational retail chains in Europe and in North America, and the unjust economic system of the world. This is of course an embarrassing situation not only to the young German Girl but also to the sensible people of the developed part of the world that is already noticeable through the rising voices of human rights’ groups, churches and various other social groups in Europe and in North America. Only one prominent example is the Amsterdam based Clean Cloth Campaign. I readily thank those across the world who are already working hard to strengthen the social dimension of globalization in future. It should also be taken into account how quickly the Civil Defense Corps, the Army and the general public responded to the disaster. They all did their job with an utmost sincerity and love. Even with limited technological resources they tried to evacuate trapped people which made it
possible to reduce the death toll significantly. Otherwise the casualty rate would have more than double. This is of course a success of the government but indicates that a hidden change has already taken place in people’s mental setup, social awareness, national commitment and national integration which I regard to be the future driving force for Bangladesh heading towards the new millennium. A decisive part of this process is an increasing global partnership system Bangladesh is now prepared to join.

It would be unwise to readily blame a single segment of the production-consumption chain. Economic benefit and bargaining capacity for the price of buying and production is the key to economic growth. There are many retail chain giants who do not only compete for increasing their profits but for mere survival on the market. That is the simple reason why they always look only for the cheapest producers without considering much how their commodities are being produced. As far as it is known, most of the major chain stores in Europe, UK and North America such as Primark, Wallmart, Loblow, Marks and Spencers, H&M, CANDA, Mango and many more are business partners of Bangladesh garment industries. It would be decent to keep in mind that these are the retail chains who are backing Bangladesh’s significant economic growth, its prosperity and increasing rates of female employment during the last decades. The major world garment producers are China, India, Bangladesh, SriLanka, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil,
South Africa, Philippines and still the line is quite long. It is not only that Bangladesh gained a strong position in the competitive market because of its technological strength, but ironically cheap labor supply resulting from extensive poverty played a vital role. Parallel to that all other mentioned countries seem to have developed significantly during the last decades which lead to an increase of labor cost. As a matter of fact Bangladesh could indirectly benefit from increasing incomes elsewhere. Anyhow, Bangladesh RMG sector has to work under a severe pressure of competition to decrease the price of production.

 

An important aspect on the national side is the factory owners, who are a kind of new generation industrialists/developers running their businesses under volatile political conditions which often drives them towards quicker profit. Some of them are reckless and their target has become to gain immediate profit but not the safety and well being of their workers. However, this is not true everywhere. There are plenty of garment factories with international level safety standards which of course involve some additional cost. Another fundamental point is the international tax system. The producers are to pay very high tax. About 15.5% tax is to be paid to the US Government to enter the US market, likewise in Europe. The whole chain ends at the bottom where helpless workers have to work for US $ 40 per month on an average or even less. As I have personally checked, an ordinary pair of trousers produced for a European chain shop costs about US$ 5 at the factory gate. When it reaches Europe it should be not more than US$ 6. But it gets a label
sticker mentioning its retail price often to be more than twice as that. The local costs are reduced by paying even less to the poor workers of which the majority is young girls without any voice to resist. Maintenance of appropriate safety measures inside the factory does not cost much. A New York based study says that just a few additional cents per piece of cloth could do this. But these “just few cents” are a factor in the supermarkets around Europe and in North America where most of the consumers are not yet willing to pay the price for more justice. Furthermore a few cents still decide whether companies produce their clothes in Bangladesh or elsewhere. As competitors in a global market Bangladeshi firms have to be very careful. There is always much pressure to deliver in time and often delays are caused by local political problems. Those delays can only be
adjusted by putting additional pressure on the helpless workers. Bangladesh´s government is aware of the safety matter, a fact documented by various political achievements and a number of recently approved laws, but often the implementation of improvements is not yet satisfying although maintenance of the construction quality and supervising static restrictions of the factory buildings is quite easy, if watched carefully. But inside-factory safety measures are still a responsibility of the factory owners which, if improved, leads to additional costs added to the overhead expenditure feed backs to the price competition internationally.

 

Obviously the main part of the problem is complicated. It needs to be brought out of the main-stream economic system and has to be solved in other way. On the one hand British supermarket giant Primark and Canadian Loblow have already agreed to raise a fund of US$ 30 million for the victims and improve factory safety measures. Some other international chains are also showing their interest to join them. The gesture was readily appreciated. On the other hand some chain super markets in the USA and Spain (also there are many others) simply denied their business relation with Bangladesh which is strange, but easy to understand as it might embarrass their customers - the unpleasant side of the capitalist economic system. Anyhow the necessary changes have to be developed under a common and widely accepted system to guarantee sustainability and to bring about a satisfying and comfortable relation between the individual consumers across the world and the producers at the local level, particularly the workers. The customer should feel proud of purchasing and using a Bangladeshi product that has been produced under socially acceptable conditions. The industry and the national economy can not grow just by the sympathy of others but also depends on the intense involvement and a strong
emotional support of those who carry the burden on their shoulders namely the millions of working men and women in the factories.

 

Download here (pdf)

 

see also:
Falk, G. C. (2013): Vom Feld in die Textilfabrik - Die Landbevölkerung in der Küstenzone Bangladeschs als Globalisierungsopfer im Spannungsfeld ökonomischer Interessen.

Zelter, S. (2012): Die Bekleidungsindustrie in Bangladesch | ein Mystery für die 4. - 6. Klasse

 

 

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