A global system of production headed by corporate brands lies behind the latest tragedy in the garment industry, argues Ashok Kumar
By early Thursday the toll had hit more than 1000 injured and 194 killed in Bangladesh’s latest garment factory disaster. The recent factory, based in the Dhaka suburb of Savar was, like almost all garment factory’s in the world, a subcontractor. It produced for major brands: Primark, Benetton, Mango, and Wal-Mart. This disaster comes on the heels of Smart Export Garment Factory fire in January killed seven, and the Tazreen Fashion Fire in November that killed 111.
Factory fires and collapses have always occurred but recently we’ve seen an uptick, especially in Bangladesh. There’s a reason why 2012 was the deadliest year in memory to be a garment worker, and 2013 is on way to beat it out. There’s also a reason why, despite countless NGOs and other ‘civil society’ initiatives, much has been attempted but none of it enforced to change factory conditions. Its because these deaths are not only a structural inevitability but increase in probability over time.
Most major garment factories are vertically disintegrated, meaning they produce garments on a contract-by-contract basis for a set piece order established by the buyer or retailer (‘brands’). For example, if a retailer like Zara order 50,000 jackets, offers a price, and a time, for completion the rest is up to the individual factory owner. Freedom! This means that after factory deaths occur the brand can deny, and almost always do, that they had any production “at this time” in the factory. Investigators often have to dig through the rubble in order to know which brands were being produced at the factory. Even when we find out which brand subcontracted to the factory, there is no liability on behalf of the brands. The brands are financially inoculated from any responsibility for factory conditions.
Brand companies walk-away with no responsibility for the death and misery they wrought along the way. They maximise profits by creating bidding wars between factory owners. Factory owners, in order to stay competitive and get the most for less, increase downward pressures on workers. Workers at the factory-floor end of this chain reaction are left with poverty-line wages, deteriorating workplace standards, and increasing incidences of factory deaths.
This has increased even more as the clothing commodity chain has become even more fluid. For 30 years the Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA) acted as a regulator on how much and where clothing could be produced. It established quotas and limits for the flourishing of garment production in the far-flung areas of the globe. Almost immediately after the MFA phase-out in 2005, brands began concentrating subcontracted production in a handful of countries, and China and Bangladesh, with their surplus labor, became the world’s top sites for garment manufacturers. It is this post-MFA world that brands can scour the globe unobstructed for the lowest labor costs and highest profits.
Garment production is Bangladesh’s chief industry and as such the government continue to undermine any worker protections in order to remain an optimum environment for labor-intensive investment and profitability.
Last June I spoke with a leader of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) who said that despite having union density at a number of large scale factories not a single one of their petitions for registration had come through. The State simply rejected it. The Bangladeshi government knows even the slightest variation in wages and conditions for workers will result in capital flight in the low-fixed capital garment sector.
Factory fires in Bangladesh are often on the brink of collapse and solutions to this problem are simple fire-conducive raw materials, locked exists, faulty or non-existent sprinkler systems, lack of fire prevention equipment or training, and high-density workplaces. In the case of Savar, the workers had been ordered back to work by the management even after they had been evacuated.
Band-aid reforms from the top will not change the conditions in garment factories, they’ve been attempted and this is the result. Improving factory conditions will take the bottom-up democratic organization of garment factory workers across the world (taking place right now) to circumvent the powerless factory owners, and negotiate directly with their real employers, the brands. International solidarity is key too, not just in terms of emergency relief, but also extending grassroots union power across borders to build a social force capable of confronting multinational capital.