The death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh, has risen to over 600 people. Bangladeshi police have also made their ninth arrest related to the incident, detaining engineer Abdul Razzak, who they say was involved in the construction of the complex. The Bangladeshi government has sought to downplay the seriousness of the tragedy, with finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith claiming that he did not think impact of the collapse on the country's garment industry was "really serious." Yet the situation clearly is serious. This is not the first time such incidents have happened in Bangladesh, and won't be the last unless working conditions and safety standards improve.
As concerned international consumers look for ways to respond to the tragedy, some have called for a blanket boycott of Bangladesh products until the country changes its practices. Yet many have argued that such a boycott would not help workers in Bangladesh, arguing that it would undermine the efforts of labor rights activists in the country who are pushing for better pay and working conditions and would rob workers of an important source of income. Instead, writing for the online news outlet Quartz, Adam Pasick argues that consumers should "strategically target a handful of companies" to pressure them to sign up to better safety regulations in Bangladesh.
Reacting to the tragedy, while many international retailers have sought to downplay their involvement with the collapsed complex, a few have actively engaged with the issue and are promising compensation for families of the victims. Although this is a welcome start, more must be done to help ensure that working conditions improve in the long term.
Following the last big disaster to hit the Bangladesh garment industry, the fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in 2012 that killed at least 117 people, trade unions and labor rights organizations drafted the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. The agreement would "establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions." But when the proposal was first floated in 2011, manufacturers refused to sign up to it. Companies such as Wal-Mart, H&M, and the Gap all refused to sign, with a spokesperson for the Gap saying the company walked out of negotiations because it did not want to make itself vulnerable to lawsuits and did not want to make a financial commitment to help with safety upgrades.
Despite promising to pay compensation to the families of victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, both Primark and Loblaw have also failed to sign the agreement. A Change.org petition started by Amirul Haque Amin, President National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh, calling on retailers Primark, Matalan, Mango and Bonmarche to sign the agreement has collected over 70,000 signatures.
According to Pasick, at least four major clothing manufacturers need to sign up to the agreement to make it go into force. So far only PvH, which owns brands including Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and German retailer Tchibo have done so. Which means that only two more need to sign up for it to go into effect. And while, as the authors of the agreement themselves point out, the "problem of unsafe conditions in Bangladesh’s apparel factories must be addressed at multiple levels by a variety of different stakeholders," international consumers can make a constructive response to the disaster by selectively targeting a number of international retailers and pressuring them to sign the agreement.
Pasick suggests targeting the Gap because it was one of most high profile companies to walk out of initial negotiations and "has shown a willingness in the past to change in the face of social pressure." Equally, consumers could target Primark and Loblaw with boycotts, pressuring them to go beyond their initial positive responses to the disaster and make a more long-term commitment to changing current practices and standards.
The benefit of such an approach is that it is something consumers can do immediately and it would also be supporting the already existing and ongoing struggle by garment workers and labor activists in Bangladesh for better pay and working conditions.