Thanks to the outsourcing boom, Bangladesh’s garment industry has exploded in size, from a few dozen factories in the early 1990s, to several thousand today. The “ready-made garments” industry – as it’s known in Bangladesh – now accounts for almost 80 per cent of the country’s export earnings and 10 per cent of its gross domestic product.
But the sector has grown far faster than the cash-strapped government’s ability to monitor and regulate it. Entrepreneurs eager to grab a share of the action frequently start with a permit to build a low-rise shopping centre, and then, as at Rana Plaza, pile factories on top of factories in Jenga-block buildings that the original foundation was never meant to support.
In the hours after Rana Plaza collapsed, Ms. Akhter could hear, but not see, the other survivors around her in the dark. “People were screaming, ‘Someone save me!’ ‘Oh God! Oh God!’ I was trying my best to pull the wall off my leg, but I couldn’t budge it.”
After several hours of lying in the darkness, Ms. Akhter heard another sound: rescuers clawing their way toward her. A pinprick of light – and air – grew into a hole large enough for someone to drop her a bottle of desperately needed water. Eventually, a rescue worker was lowered down to her. “When I saw him, I begged him, ‘Brother, just cut off my leg and carry me out of here. I just want to survive.’<TH> ”
The rescuer refused, and returned with a shovel that he used to free her crushed limb. Ms. Akhter remembers reaching a hospital. Then she collapsed into a coma.
Although Loblaw was more forthcoming than most affected retailers in the wake of the disaster at Rana Plaza, the lines of responsibility are still blurred.
Loblaw, the parent company of Joe Fresh, didn’t have a direct relationship with the factories that produced its clothing at Rana Plaza. The orders that ended up there came through at least one middle man, maybe more.
Bashir Ahmed is a factory floor manager at Rana Plaza. “We were making clothes for Loblaw for five or six years. Joe Fresh was 50 per cent of our production, about 50,000 pieces a month. Sometimes it took up the whole [production] line,” Mr. Ahmed says.
He says orders started at Pearl Global Industries, a New Delhi sourcing company similar to Li & Fung, then went to a Bangladeshi subsidiary called Norp Knit Industries, then arrived at New Wave Styles for his team to handle.
“Four or five us were standing together, talking. Then suddenly everything started going down. My head couldn’t process what was happening,” Mr. Ahmed recalled of the moment of collapse. When he landed, everything around him was pitch black. “I couldn’t feel anything. I was numb. All I thought was ‘these are my last moments.’ I lay there praying.”
A Loblaw spokesperson said on the day of the disaster that the Rana factory produced only “a small number of Joe Fresh apparel items.” A week later, the company’s executive chairman, Galen G. Weston, told reporters he had reviewed available information in detail and was “deeply troubled.”
“This was a senseless tragedy,” he said. “Based on what we know, the top floors of the building should never have been built. And reports from the ground suggested the garment workers should never have been allowed back in the building after an evacuation was ordered.”
The details under review included audits of Rana Plaza. But as Mr. Weston said, those reports don’t cover structural integrity. To mitigate that, and what he calls “unacceptable risk” to workers, he’s pledged to make sure factories uphold local construction and building codes – and that the grocer’s own people will be “on the ground.”
Loblaw has also committed an undisclosed amount to victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, along with giving $1-million to the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed hospital in Bangladesh and the Save the Children charity.
This week, Loblaw spokeswoman Julija Hunter would not discuss specific suppliers used by Loblaw but said the company pays for social compliance audits that check working conditions. “If we found that a factory was not compliant, we would work with them to put into place a corrective action plan and audit to ensure that they were compliant. If they are not, we would not do business with them.”
Meanwhile, almost three months after the disaster, Mr. Ahmed was still recovering from the injuries he suffered on April 24 – a smashed left leg that required bone to be transplanted from his pelvis.
‘Massive institutional ignorance’
The Rana Plaza collapse has certainly inspired some soul-searching in the West about how to avoid recurrences. But it also inspired a good deal of equivocation. Indeed, after this week’s fatal fire at Aswad Composite Mills, some of the same Western brands that did business at Rana Plaza were still professing a lack of responsibility for the working conditions of those who contribute to making their clothes.