Last Thursday marked the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, which left more than 1100 dead and many more injured. The disaster has been described as one of the worst industrial accidents in modern history.
In the year since the accident, we have witnessed a number of initiatives aimed at providing compensation to the victims and preventing similar catastrophes from occurring in the future. As recent analyses and commentaries point out however, these efforts have been largely insufficient. Victims for instance, have thus far received little compensation despite promised assistance. The two agreements meant to hold corporations accountable for working conditions, fall short on a variety of fronts. And the market for cheap, fast-fashion continues to swell.
However, there is a particularly important issue which seems to have been largely neglected in these discussions: that garment production in Bangladesh, and its accompanying impacts on workers’ well-being, cannot be considered in isolation from the broader global trading regime within which it is situated.
Production in the textile and clothing sector is characterized by global commodity chains whereby suppliers around the world compete for contracts. This creates an imperative for suppliers to remain competitive by way of low labour costs and more flexible employment conditions. Poor working conditions in the sector are thus not unique to Bangladesh, or even less developed countries. This past December, seven workers were killed in a garment factory fire in Italy, where thousands of Chinese immigrants are reported to produce garments under conditions of squalor.
Employment in the sector is also extremely vulnerable to the type of economic shifts that are inherent to an increasingly interconnected world. In 2001, an economic recession combined with a change in US foreign policy diverted a significant amount of garment orders from Bangladesh to African and Caribbean nations. In a matter of months, almost 1,300 firms closed and 400,000 workers (mostly women) were left jobless. Job insecurity, in addition to poor working conditions, is thus a defining feature of employment in the sector.
Together these considerations suggest the need for a broader, global approach to ensuring the well-being of textile and clothing workers. Towards this end, some have suggested linking trade agreements to respect of international labour standards. However, others worry this might raise labour costs to the point that poor countries will lose a significant proportion of their employment.
It has also been suggested that “the struggle for labor standards needs to be broadened and made more inclusive by transforming itself into a struggle for a universal ‘‘social floor,’’” which would guarantee provision of basic needs to all citizens. This would not only ensure that workers are able to collectively organize without fear of losing their employment, but also provide a safety net for workers in times of economic downtowns.
At a minimum, addressing the well-being of textile and clothing workers requires recognitions of the links between global trade and labour markets, discussions of the ultimate objectives of trade policies, and more comprehensive and fine-tuned assessments of how trade interacts through international labour markets to influence health.