In The Source special Bangladesh edition:
Bangladesh building safety plans hit by confusion
Estimates of the state of Bangladesh factory buildings varied widely, with some respected surveyors claiming that up to 60% of factory buildings are unsafe. Major buyers’ inspections provoked controversy, as other buyers disputed some judgements, some factories disputed buyer’s findings and other factories accused Walmart of deliberately libelling suppliers who had previously fired the retailer. Conflicting codes seem partly to blame
With no common ground about the scale of dangerous buildings, there is no serious estimate of how much repairing or replacing them will cost. Plans to relocate many factories are stuck as land still has not been acquired for a new factory zone – eight years after it was first announced. Fewer factories want to move than expected – but they want twice as much space as is planned for them
Truth of “food poisoning” and “worker unrest” equally hard to establish
A number of near-simultaneous apparent food poisoning and water contamination incidents in Bangladesh were claimed by activists to be further evidence of unsafe working conditions, by some factory owners to be the result of deliberate poisoning and by doctors to be mass hysteria partly caused by dehydration, poor ventilation and poor nutrition. Near-continuous violent disputes around Ashulia have apparently caused many buyers to shift production elsewhere in the country, and encouraged a huge range of suggested causes: from simple criminality, through legitimate worker grievance to conspiracies by mysterious foreigners or just opposition politicians.
Buyers pursue agreements as shopper concern evidence dubious
Buyers accounting for about 35% of Western European garment sales signed an Accord committing to helping fund rectifying unsafe factories, accept worker involvement in planning and continuing to buy in Bangladesh. Most US buyers declined, with spokesmen claiming to have an alternative plan. It later transpired they did not, but knew why they dislike what Europeans signed and say they might have one by mid July. Walmart and Gap, however, probably invested as least as much money and effort into Bangladesh factory safety as any European.
Though media described widespread public outrage over factory safety, our review of published research shows no evidence of significant public preparedness to pay more for better working conditions. Some market research seems to shows about 30% of North American shoppers just don’t want to buy anything made in Bangladesh
UK, US and Canadian investors call for signing. Australians say “quit”
US and UK shareholder groups sent letters to buyers implying continued shareholding requires greater buyer attention to working conditions. A group of Canadian shareholders sent a similar letter, without the implied threat. An Australian bank said it regarded continued use of Bangladesh factories as a risk. Outside the English-speaking world, shareholders were silent.
Bangladesh garment exports since the November Tazreen fire have been growing at twice the growth rate they enjoyed before, but many buyers and factory owners think they will start falling from about July. No-one but Disney has announced it is leaving. Moody’s rating agency predicted the disasters would discourage foreign investment – but more foreign garment and support businesses have opened in the past six months than for some years. Businesses still report serious labour shortages, as a thriving labour broking industry arises.
Will wage rises and union rights dampen perpetual violence?
The Bangladesh government announced unions would be allowed, but most worker representatives attacked its proposals as undemocratic. Many Bangladeshis, though, agree with the government that politically motivated activists need to be kept out of industrial relations. The government announced a wage review board, and promised to backdate its award to May 1. Activists are pushing aggressively for a 150% increase, as many observers believe there is more to the violence than worker dissatisfaction.