How much does life cost?

© Nasirul Islam

By Abul Hasan Rubel

May 15 2013

Some facts, figures and truth about garment sector in Bangladesh: A worker gets 0.12 dollar for a polo shirt of 14$ retail price at western markets. The production cost of a genes shirt in Bangladesh is 3.72$ where as it is 13.22$. The labour costs are 0.22$ &7.47$ respectively.

There are thousands of people died from building collapse and fire in the garments throughout the last two decades, yet no one is punished for those incidents.

The demolition of Rana plaza has the highest number of death tolls and injuries in a single incident after the independence of Bangladesh according to the official sources.

“Incidents like this are broadcast in both the local and foreign media in such a way that it tends to suggest everything is bad here. But that is not the case. Only a handful of companies out of the country’s about 6,000 garment companies could be lagging when it comes to compliance.”

-Mominur Rahman, executive chairman of Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA) “Savar tragedy is not so serious. I think international communities would praise us for the actions taken. It's an accident.”

-Finance Minister of Bangladesh.
The recent building collapse, the 'Rana Plaza tragedy', has caused the death of more than 1127 people, mostly workers according to official sources. But dead bodies are yet to be found. About 200 people are missing. Thousands of people are injured. It is a well-practiced way to keep number of death lower, by terming them as missing. This time emotional involvement of a huge number of citizens and their continuous monitoring has helped the number of missing to be limited, yet it is a big number. However, even with the official number of death it is largest 'accident'. These sorts of 'accidents' are not rare in Bangladesh, it’s a repetitive reality. After each case of 'accidents' we hear 'actions' are being taken, and then everything becomes silent after a considerable amount of time. After each incident, irregularities, corruptions, negligence, and greed became evident behind those incidents. In all previous cases of building collapse it was found that either the planning of the building was faulty, or, was built without proper permission from authorities, or, plan was passed violating the building safety codes, or was not fit for running any industry, or building materials were below standards, or a combination of those causes. In all cases of fire it was found that the factory didn't have the necessary fire safety measures, the building gate was closed after the fire incident was noticed, they didn't have the steps wide enough for the workers to escape; there were fire-prone materials stored inside the factory etc. And yet dominant discourses continue to term them as accidents.

These are general truths. But at every specific case we can found some people responsible for the whole incident. At Rana Plaza, for an example, the owner of the building and factory owners are directly responsible. News sources tell us the vulnerability of the building was very much evident day before the incident; but workers were forced to join the work because of the political purpose of the building owner, (as he was showing the strength of ruling party in an anti-hartal rally against the hartal of main opposition party by forcing the workers) and greed of the garment factory owners. Like Rana Plaza we can find other directly responsible persons in each case of the incidents. But none the guilty persons was punished. So, the system actually protects them from punishment. But the system not only protects them, the underlying corruption of the system permit the factory building without proper building or fire safety codes, doesn't monitor the safety of the workers, and as a whole drags people to death. Therefore, these are not accidents, these are structural killings of the system.

But why this is happening? Why life is so cheap here? If we take a deeper look at the statement of finance minister, we can have some clue. This accident is 'nothing serious' in the view of our finance minister because it' won't affect much to the overall business of garment industry' and ' internationally actions taken after the incident would be praised'. If we consider another example in the same building in case of Brack Bank and compare it with garment factory , then we can easily find the interlink. The Savar bus-stand branch of Brack Bank, situated on the 2nd floor of the building suspended its operation and thus saved the lives of its 11 employees. What would happen if the same were done by the owners of the five garments factories? Is the cost of cancelled orders more than the value of 3500 workers (according to the conservative estimates) who worked in the five garments? This is a reality; the brutal, brutal logic of capital. There lies the real meaning of the statement of finance minister. Like the finance minister, What Bangladeshi garment owners really worries about is not the life of workers but the cancelling GSP facilities and their orders from the clients. They tell the media to be responsible to the sector, find conspiracy to destroy the sector in any protest of workers or activists. They depict the labour movement organizers as utter disgrace. And in almost all cases we find government rallying with the garment owners. We can easily understand the worries of the garment owners but why Bangladesh government does response in the same way? And how could we explain the satisfaction of international capital and its actions?

We need to take a look at overall industrial and productive sector of Bangladesh to explain this. Here we can't go in details but let's take a look at a glance. What we have witnessed in Bangladesh after independence is, the newly formed ruling class used the state power for its primary capital accumulation and soon became an integral part of international capitalist system after early years of restrictions. During the years of structural adjustment program all the state run industries were gradually sold to private owners at a very low cost. The ruling elites bought them for almost nothing and shattered them just after few years of acquisition. Thus structural adjustment played its part to create private owners of state resources. A huge debt and aid flow during the years of structural adjustment can also be credited for the growth a new class. This flow allowed politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, and consultants to form the class integrated to the international capitalist system. The owners of the garment industries are no other person than the outcomes of this process.

Garment sector is a perfect example of global division of labour, where raw materials, designs and orders come from international sources and in Bangladesh labour is only engaged to assemble the whole thing. The single component that lures international capital to come here is cheap labour. Thus the owners of garment industries are not running any basic industry but acting as a contractor of cheap labour for international capital. As all other productive sector of Bangladesh has already been destroyed or very small in size, economy largely depends on this sector. Thus it creates a double critical situation- the garment owners become huge powerful group within the country and both Bangladesh state and those powerful owners remains as a very weak and vulnerable group in international sphere. This also seriously degrades their bargain power.

In this context, how can we explain the actions of Disney to stop buying garments from Bangladesh or cancelling the GSP facilities by western world? Does that help the workers anyway? Let's not forget buying clothes from Bangladesh is not doing a favor to us. International capital is here to do business. They make a unbelievable margin of profit by buying the garments from Bangladesh. International market largely depend on Bangladesh for low-cost clothes. And cheap labour is the key to maintain that low cost. So, no way they are flying away from Bangladesh, whatever incident occurs here. Above mentioned measures are mere skin-saving programs for the consolation of the disheartened western buyers of Bangladeshi clothes. But these actions may harm the workers instead of helping them. Generally big buyers or big companies buy the clothes of higher prices and industries with better working conditions. For garment owners, their withdrawal from Bangladesh means search for more low-price markets that brings low wage and worse working condition along with it and this means more misery to the workers. Along with these steps “ I can't take the blame, I won't use the shirts made in Bangladesh” mentality of western buyers, are also walking away from their responsibility.

There is another group of people who claim to be 'Bangladesh loving ‘and they argue “Bangladeshi workers did choose these jobs, and they chose them on the rational basis that these jobs pay more than the available alternatives.” Therefore, sweatshops must be a good thing. “But how free a choice is it when the alternative – subsistence agriculture – pays far less than $1 a day, a wage the UN considers the threshold for extreme poverty.” This is based on two arguments one is workers are choosing freely and another is they are better paid than the subsistence agriculture in sweatshops. Both of them fail to reflect the reality. Firstly workers are not free choosers and lack of available jobs compels them to work under unhygienic, dangerous conditions with a lower payment. Secondly, even in the so called subsistence agriculture a day labourer gets a wage 3-4 dollar per day but there is not enough agricultural jobs for people to be engaged in. And in fact garment workers are lowest paid internationally in this sector and also lowest paid in Bangladesh compared to other sectors. And they tries to frighten us that “Pushing not only for raised safety standards but also for wages that match those in the developed world is a tactic that will have the effect of shutting down developing world manufacturing altogether. Businesses need to save some money on labor in order to justify the additional cost of manufacturing abroad.” This argument also has little leg because no one here is demanding the wage of developed world. The call to raise the wages is just an argument for a bit of reduction of existing sky-high inequality. But if we take the second part of the argument there lays another lie, in fact, cost of manufacturing other than labour is also lower in developing world, and so reduction of additional costs for manufacturing aboard is nothing but a lame excuse. What they tries to frighten us about what doesn't exist at all. Globalization is not going to be reversed by its principal beneficiaries. Then how can we explain the occasional withdrawal of some companies?

Cheap labor is undoubtedly a boon for companies, but shoddy standards are not. Buildings that collapse or catch on fire, unhygienic workplaces where workers routinely fall ill etc. mean halted production and lost revenue. That also means the otherwise unnoticed lives of garment workers to come into forth to haunt the consumers, bad press propaganda and ultimately the falling of share prices that leads the western firms to deny their links to the garment industries when things become evident.

There is another argument from the western companies that even if they pay a higher price for the clothes workers won't get it, so that's not the point to think about. We hear just the opposite from Bangladeshi part that they can't live up with a higher salary as the cost of the production would be higher and western buyers would fly away. Whoever be true, it doesn't help the workers.

So, what could be done? If right movement activists, labour organizations, and consumers put the pressure on companies to reduce their unbelievable profit margin it can help without harming them so much. For an example, a reduction of 12 cents of profit of the retailers ( where their total profit per polo shirt is more than 7$) for a piece of polo shirt can double the wage of the workers. If they don't believe the Bangladeshi garment owners, no problem, an independent commission for garment sector could be formed by the government for the well being of workers and the increased revenue could go directly to them. Pressure from within and outside the country would also be needed for ensuring the safety of the workers. No garment industry should be in the residence area in the buildings made for people's living. There should be industrial villages where garment workers would have residence, health care center, and school for their kids and some recreation places. The accident law also needs to be tough on any negligence and misdeeds. These are some suggestions regarding the short and medium term solutions. But in the long run Bangladesh needs its own productive sector, independent of international capital, to be developed. That can reduce the dependence of Bangladesh on one single sector and give its much necessary bargain power with international capital. This can reduce the control of garment owners over the policies of Bangladesh state as well. Workers can have a choice when there is enough alternative to take. Without these things workers would be forced to live and die cheap.

Writer: Abul Hasan Rubel
Central Member, Ganasamhati Andolan
Coordinator, Ecological Movement