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Opinion The garment disaster is no time to abandon Bangladesh

The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Savar, Bangladesh, is a heart-wrenching story. The death toll has now topped 400, and hundreds more remain missing. The death toll alone, however saddening it is, fails to encompass the sheer impact of this event. The garment workers, who are mostly women, are the prime breadwinners of their families. Therefore, the death and injury – and the end of this factory – not only cut off the income of its 6,000 workers, but also the source of subsistence for perhaps 10,000 to 16,000 family members.

The local television channels are airing a rescue effort that bears every sign of trauma, desperation and heroism. On the one hand, ordinary people, the fire service and the military are spending relentless hours actively supporting the rescue operations. A few hospitals such as Enam Medical College in Dhaka have provided unprecedented medical support. Quite a few young entrepreneurs have dedicated their capital and work force to the rescue operation. A software company of a close friend of mine decided to postpone its monthly paycheques and dedicated the money to buying oxygen cylinders and other emergency products. Bloggers, who have recently been target of political arrests, are writing, tweeting and updating their Facebook status to encourage everybody to help provide the immediate needs of the rescue effort.

On the other hand, the Savar incident demonstrates the ugly politics of Bangladesh. The Home Minister took little time to blame the opposition party in an interview with the BBC, claiming that the supporters of a general strike must have shaken the building, causing it to collapse – a statement he later denied having said. The Prime Minister claimed that the building owner was never a member of the ruling party's student wing, claim contradicted by readily available photograpic evidence. The opposition party too has done little apart from castigating the government and has barely made any constructive effort to show its solidarity amidst a national crisis. One Islamic party, Hefazat-e Islam, distributed its party bandana to the rescuers.

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Even though this national crisis has shocked the country like never before, it is not unprecedented. Almost 150 garment workers died when a fire engulfed another factory in November. There are other incidences of building collapse and poor labour and safety standards resulting in the death and injury of hundreds.

The responsibility for these deaths neither categorically belongs to Western companies nor to the textile industry of Bangladesh. The Western companies have often fallen short of their ethical business practices by overlooking the labour safety issues only to take advantage of cheap labour. When they care to verify the labour safety status of the companies, they are often hoodwinked by the local garment factories. Even the big garment factories, which often boast of having unscrupulous labour standards and amenities such as daycare facilities for workers, turn a blind eye when they subcontract Western deals to smaller factories, which cannot sustain the cost of strict safety measures.

However, incidents such as this catastrophe must not lead to a doubling down of the misery by intimidating Western apparel brands into withdrawing their contracts from Bangladesh. That would cut off the livelihood of almost 3.5 million garment workers, of which 80 per cent are women, and their families. The consequences would include the slow and catastrophic disempowerment of the women in Bangladesh.

Instead, the Savar incident should prompt Western clothing companies to build a partnership of trust and to impose incentives that encourage the textile industry of Bangladesh to implement labour safety standards. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Locke has demonstrated in his works that improved labour rights in the garment industry occur when a horizontal partnership is built instead of a top-down relationship.

Bangladesh is a tale of extreme ambivalence. On the one hand, the country's economic progress is ravaged by natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, political instability, frequent general strikes and showdowns, pervasive corruption, and the marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, the country breeds pioneering stories such as Nobel laureate Muhammed Yunus's Grameen Bank, Abed Khan's BRAC (one of the world's largest one of the most successful aid organizations), and impressive results in such accomplishments as lowering maternal mortality rates.

Let this terrible catastrophe be the straw that breaks the camel's back and forces Bangladesh's industry into the latter category. Let this be an opportunity to build an effective partnership in the global market that ensures the long-due labour rights of the Bangladesh textile workers.

Asif Farooq, originally from Bangladesh, is a researcher at the Centre for the Study on Rapid Global Change at the University of Waterloo.

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