The tragic collapsed garment factory in a Dhaka suburb has generated important soul-searching questions. Canadians are shocked, and asking what can be done to help the working women in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
There is plenty of blame to go around, beginning with the owners of the building and of the garment factory, who ignored the fracture in the building the day before the accident and reportedly forced the workers to enter the building. No one should be coerced into entering an unsafe workplace in order to feed her family.
According to news reports, the land on which the plaza was built lawfully belonged to a member of the Hindu minority, who allegedly was forcefully evicted by Mohammad Sohel Rana, the owner of the building. Mr. Rana is known as a muscleman for the political class, supplying paid demonstrators who paralyze citizens’ routine lives by staging violent political demonstrations and marches.
As dreadful as these individuals behaved, however, the root causes of the problem are rampant corruption and a lack of, or inconsistent application of, the rule of law.
But we shouldn’t simply focus our attention on building safety. We should also take into account the meagre wages and deplorable working conditions of these women workers, which Pope Francis denounced as “slave labour.”
For the appalling labour conditions, the political leadership of Bangladesh must bear the ultimate responsibility. Solutions to these problems rest on these leaders’ shoulders, for only they can root out corruption and enforce laws. Without changes in these fundamental root causes, more tragedies are waiting to happen.
The garment industry is very important to Bangladesh, generating significant foreign income for the country. However, its most significant contribution is the economic empowerment of a vast number of women by providing them with a source of income, meagre as it might be. This empowerment has brought about remarkable social changes in this impoverished country, including on many key social development indexes such as literacy and child mortality.
Without this income, women would remain hostage to a male-dominated economic system, resulting in social degradation and deprivation. The recent progress made by women in Bangladesh is under threat from fundamentalist religious groups, which are well funded by Middle Eastern money.
As a result of destructive power politics between the two major political parties in Bangladesh (ironically both led by women), the fundamentalist forces have become stronger. One such group recently demanded that women’s rights be curtailed and that the secular education policy be scrapped in favour of Islamic teaching.
Protecting the rights of women and minorities is important to ensure that fundamentalists will not be able to turn Bangladesh into another Afghanistan. Therefore, weakening the country through a consumer boycott, as appealing as it may seem, would not be in the best interests of working women.
While Bangladesh is a signatory to International Labour Organization conventions governing labour standards, its track record in upholding international labour and safety standards is not reassuring. A fire in another garment factory a few months earlier resulted in no concrete action. As such, mere assurances given by Bangladesh would not be sufficient.
However, there are actions Canadians and our government can take to prevent such tragedies. As part of the solution, members of the Retail Council of Canada need to take steps to ensure manufacturing plants they contract with conduct business in a socially responsible manner.
Ottawa can also use its leverage, since garment imports represent more than $1-billion in trade with Bangladesh. This is significant in economic terms for Bangladesh. Canada should work in concert with the U.S., Britain and European Union in demanding that Bangladesh respects ILO conventions if it wants access to our markets.
Having grown up in what is now Bangladesh and lived in many parts of the world, I can see that Canada is a force for good. Let’s use this force to improve the plight of women in Bangladesh and other developing countries.
Amit Chakma is president of Western University.