A drive to improve safety at Bangladeshi garment factories is laudable, but consumers must play a role as well.
All clothiers, including those in US, need to join safety accord
The European clothing retailer Primark's announcement last week that it would pull its manufacturing operations out of Bangladesh if safety standards are not substantially improved in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse demonstrates admirable corporate leadership.
Under a five-year plan, the Dublin-based firm will provide Dh1.84 million a year towards independent inspections and fire safety upgrades with the aim of making factory tragedies a thing of the past.
Shoddily constructed with illegally added floors and situated on unstable ground, cracks began forming in Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building in the capital Dhaka's Savar sub-district, on April 23.
However, warnings to vacate it were ignored and the next day it collapsed, killing 1,129 workers and injuring about 2,500. It is thought to be the worst garment factory disaster in history, as well as the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern times.
Under the accord, employees will be permitted to form health and safety committees and, in agreement with International Labour Organization Convention 155, refuse to work under dangerous conditions. In addition, contracts between international retailers and Bangladeshi manufacturers must provide for the establishment and maintenance of safe premises, which may cost up to Dh1.9m per factory.
"We don't want to be in unsafe factories," said Katherine Kirk, ethical trading director for Primark, which was one of around 40 brands making clothes in the building when it collapsed.
"By signing up to the accord, we are all committing to at least maintaining the level of business we have in Bangladesh for five years. After that period, we will have to re-evaluate our position."
Some firms with outlets in the UAE, such as Marks & Spencer, Mango, Mothercare, Carrefour, H&M and Benetton, have joined Primark in supporting the accord, which will cover more than 1,000 of the country's 4,500 factories.
However, most major US firms, including Gap Inc and Walmart, refuse to sign, citing concerns over liability issues and a preference for a voluntary safety inspection model.
Only seven companies, including Primark, which had permanent staff monitoring safety conditions in Bangladesh but did not conduct structural inspections, and Benetton, have so far agreed to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster.
Strong resistance from some members of the corporate community is just one of the obstacles that must be overcome. Corruption, which renders the state inspection regime ineffective, and a lack of political will to radically change the way the Dh73bn a year industry is regulated also undermine broader international efforts to improve conditions.
Hundreds more state inspectors must be hired to properly survey factories and enforce existing regulations, according to the government, which estimates that up to 60 per cent of the country's garment factories have structural problems.
Threats from companies such as Primark to pull out of Bangladesh, the world's second-largest garment producer, if safety conditions for the country's nearly four million workers (mainly women who earn as little as Dh140 per month) do not improve over the next five years is a significant step in the right direction.
But it is arguably up to consumers themselves to help improve conditions by making ethical and informed decisions when shopping, choices that could ultimately influence corporate behaviour right across the spectrum.