More than a year has passed since the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed 1,100 Bangladeshi textile workers in April, 2013, and it continues to amaze me how even avowed champions of safer third world workplaces have ignored the role new trade policies need to make in achieving genuine reform.
The good news on the worker safety front is that no other Rana-like calamities have befallen Bangladesh, although smaller-scale fatalities continue. (In fairness, no country is free of these.) In addition, the owner of the Rana factory complex has finally been charged with “gross” violations of local building codes (he’s been imprisoned since shortly after the tragedy). Also charged has been the local mayor allegedly in cahoots with him.
The Obama administration suspended the special tariff breaks America had been extending to Bangladesh exports. Foreign (mainly European) apparel companies have promised to support stepped up factory inspections and to even pay the cost of improvements. More than 200 unsafe factories reportedly have been closed. And nearly 200 new labor unions have been registered in the country.
At the same time, by most accounts, most Bangladesh factories remain tragedies waiting to happen. The European Union still grants the country trade preferences. Violence against labor organizers – conspicuously overlooked and sometimes rhetorically encouraged by the government – seems worse. The factory shutdowns reportedly have thrown 80,000 out of work. And deathtrap workplaces remain far too common throughout the developing world – notably, in neighboring India.
In other words, from all appearances, the world’s garment industry is still dominated by race-to-the-bottom dynamics, in which apparel companies and the retailers they supply pit the world’s poorest countries against each other in a tragic competition to offer the lowest wages and the most threadbare, or poorly enforced, regulations.
Shortly after the Rana collapse, I wrote that this race will ontinue unless the world’s trading powers reverse a major mistake made in a fit of free trade extremism. Specifically, they need to restore a system of garment trade quotas that guaranteed the smallest, poorest countries a steadily growing share of rich-country apparel markets – and thereby reduced the industry’s incentives and capacity to punish third world governments for allowing higher wages and better working conditions.
Unfortunately, reinstating this Multifibre Arrangement is nowhere to be found on the U.S. or international trade agenda – strongly indicating that, despite the best efforts of unions, other activists, and even consumers and companies with a conscience, the next Rana-like accident is only a matter of time.