By Christopher Young, MPSA 2015

Earlier this year, over 1,000 people lost their lives in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Additionally, hundreds of workers were severely injured, including many who underwent amputations, with 92 percent of survivors claiming to have experienced extreme traumatization.

The factory collapse was the deadliest garment factory accident in Bangladeshi history. Unfortunately, factory collapses in Bangladesh are not rare occurrences. In November 2012, a fire killed 100 people in a textile factory in Dhaka, and after the Rana Plaza collapse, a fire killed nine workers in a clothing factory in Dhaka that supplied clothing to many western companies.

Subsequently, thousands of garment workers revolted in protest, and ravaged many industrial areas in Bangladesh, by setting fires to factories and vandalizing private property. Protesters also railed against various Western companies, advocating for more progressive business practices. Specifically, protesters advocated and campaigned for Inditex (a Spanish fashion company), Premier (a British footwear producer), and Wal-Mart to compensate the families of those who perished in the collapse.

Bangladeshi Garment Industry After China, Bangladesh is the world’s second largest clothes exporter – a $22 billion dollar industry in the country. Since the Rana Plaza collapse, several companies have campaigned for higher wages and improved safety regulations for factories in Bangladesh. H&M has strongly urged Bangladesh to raise minimum wages. Global clothing companies including Benneton, Primarck, and Matalan and Bonmarche have begun discussing compensation for Rana Plaza victims. Additionally, 80 companies have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, though Wal-Mart and Gap have refused to sign it, instead offering a watered-down agreement that fails to prioritize worker’s rights.

Despite Wal-Mart and Gap’s hesitation, advocates continue to press for better wages and improved safety regulations. In September, garment factory workers went on strike for six days, and affected production of Bangladesh’s 3,200 factories. Furthermore, garment factory workers held a factory owner for more than 18 hours until he paid the bonuses he owed the workers.

However, many factories assert that they cannot afford to implement stricter safety regulations and pay workers higher wages. Several factories state that they would like to pay higher wages, but can only compensate by increasing the prices to Western retail companies. Potentially, this could jeopardize their businesses, and force the owners to hire fewer workers.

According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporter Association (BGMEA), most Bangladeshis earn $54 monthly, largely due to overtime (OT) pay. Compared to other Asian countries, Bangladeshi workers earn half of what of Cambodian and Vietnamese workers make, and just a quarter above what Chinese workers earn. According to the Asian Development Bank, export growth is forecast to slow to 7% during the fiscal year that started in July, which is down from 11% last year. Bangladeshi garment workers, though, have continued to protest throughout September, and have managed to receive a 50-80% minimum wage increase after disrupting operations at 20% of garment factories.

The garment workers were successful in there advocacy, yet it is imperative that we don’t demonize Bangladeshi factories. Bangladeshi factories are in a precarious economic situation, and often operate in environments that incentivize cheap labor, poor safety standards, and corruption. Moreover, Western companies should not be demonized either. They, too, have to meet bottom lines and stakeholder obligations that require adherence. Sadly, Bangladesh’s labor practices are largely due to consumerist culture and the yearning for cheap goods. Both Western companies and factory managers operate within this consumerist framework, and it’s time we re-examine this framework and create a fairer, more equitable world.