Workers throughout Bangladesh were outraged at the unfortunate passing of Ms Rima Khatun, a garment worker, who lost her life in December 2019 when a boiler exploded inside a garment factory, injuring 10 other pedestrians in the process. This incident caused 4.5 million people who work in the 4,500 garment export factories across the country to raise their voices in concern as the incident stirred memories of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013; where a Dhaka factory collapse claimed over 1,100 lives.
While the December 2019 incident was much smaller, it raises fresh concerns in the nation that worker safety may be sliding back to the old ways after making remarkable progress since the 2013 incident. The Rana disaster resulted in Bangladesh experiencing one of the most effective campaigns of the globalised era to improve worker and safety conditions.
The enormous toll, which one union at the time called a “mass industrial homicide”, saw the likes of Target, Walmart, and H&M forced to confront the rampant safety and worker abuses in their fashion supply chain. Fearing irreparable damage and customer boycotts, the brands worked with unions, factory owners, NGOs, and the government to improve safety, with notable results.
Fire alarm systems have been installed in thousands of factories, and fire doors, sprinkler systems, electrical upgrades and improved building foundations have proliferated. Wages, despite still being rather low, have risen; and worker rights have improved, drastically in some cases.
But now Bangladesh, the second-largest garment exporter after China, stands at a crossroads as the safety deals put in place after the Rana disaster expire. Many see the unfortunate case of Ms Khatun’s passing as a sign of what may come if the industry is allowed to return to past practices.
A power struggle that is now unfolding over who controls factory safety will have ramifications not just for those in Bangladesh, but for consumers around the world.
On one hand, the local factory owners are calling for international monitoring to end, and that responsibility for worker safety be returned to the Bangladeshis. On the other hand, are the worker groups and their non-profit supporters, who wish to preserve the hard-won gains of the past seven years.
The Western brands who employ the factories also have a stake in all this. They are hyperconscious of both their costs and their reputations, which came under concentrated attack after Rana Plaza.
All want a say in how to police the US$34 billion worth of apparel exported annually by Bangladesh. Caught in the middle are millions of workers, many of whom harbor growing concerns for their safety once more.