x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Pulling stakes will not aid Bangladesh

Improving labour standards in places like Bangladesh will require a combination of pressure from private companies and governments.

The building collapse in Bangladesh last month, which killed more than 500 garment factory workers, was a tragedy of epic proportions. And, with good reason, the accident has forced a conversation about fair labour practices in that country.

How that conversation plays out is critical, not only for the ethical buying habits of global consumers or the bottom lines of retailers. If taken seriously and discussed rationally, calls for industry reform could have a positive impact on workers in an industry long plagued by shoddy work conditions and low pay.

But if the global reaction leads to a mass exodus of jobs, there will be many more victims in Bangladesh who will suffer as a result.

The magnitude of this incident in Dhaka, and others before it, has put more pressure than ever on retailers reliant on contract manufacturing in the developing world. The Walt Disney Company had already announced it was leaving Bangladesh following public protest after a fire at another garment factory killed over 100 last year. Now, other clothing giants - from Primark to Wal-Mart - are said to be reevaluating their relationships with contractors in the country.

It is incumbent these companies think hard before leaving. Employers in this sector are giants in a nation starved of domestic job opportunities. As much as 45 per cent of Bangladesh's industrial employment is in the country's US$20 billion (Dh73.46bn) garment industry, which accounts for a whopping 78 per cent of the nation's export earnings.

Moreover, the employment situation is dire in Bangladesh; an estimated 7.5 million of its citizens live abroad - including many in the Arabian Gulf - to earn a living and support their families back home.

Improving labour standards in places like Bangladesh will require a combination of pressure from private companies - which can require their contractors to adhere to local laws and pay livable wages - and governments. Targeting corruption, refurbishing unsafe factory buildings, ensuring tougher factory inspections and improving pay are long-term goals that will only be solved if companies push and governments insist.

No progress will be possible if there are no companies left to push reform. Bangladeshis have already suffered one too many man-made tragedies in this industry. They don't need to endure another.