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Locals, not foreigners, must bring change to Bangladesh

A few Saturdays ago, I caught a programme on Radio 4 that made for uncomfortable listening.

It concerned the aftermath of the dreadful collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, which left more than 1,100 factory workers dead and sparked a worldwide explosion of disgust and indignation that has barely abated.

There were more than 5,000 people in the building and about 2,500 survived with injuries. The BBC reporter highlighted that many of those who had lost family members and/or been hurt themselves had received a pitiful lack of support since. Some able-bodied workers had found it difficult to find new jobs as a number of factories had closed as new standards of safety have been hastily enforced.

The most astonishing revelation, however, gave a clue as to why the disaster occurred. According to the BBC man, the multi-storey HQ of the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) in Dhaka was built without planning permission and a local court ordered it to be demolished two years ago. The BGMEA has appealed and this legal toing and froing will probably go on for years. Meanwhile, what many see as an illegal, condemned structure still houses the industry body that should be policing its members and their facilities.

After the calamitous negative publicity about the Rana Plaza collapse - it too had been built in blatant and apparently well-known contravention of local planning regulations - Western retailers and brands, mainly from the UK, Europe and the US, have decided they do not want another PR disaster about their sources of production. As has been widely reported, a group of largely British and European names, plus a few from the US, has signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to improve conditions, while across the Atlantic a mainly US group has done pretty much the same thing under the banner of The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

One big difference between the two is that the accord promises financial compensation to workers if a factory is closed down, a provision leading American businesses such as Walmart and GAP would not agree to, hence their own alliance. Added to all this, the Bangladeshi government is also drawing up its own regulations. Sources hope that by early November something like a comprehensive set of standards may be brought together by all the interested parties. The accord’s partners include international labour organisations and non-governmental organisations, whose aims are notably different to commercial business, so it will be fascinating to see how this all works in practice. I wonder how much room for interpretation will exist and who, actually, will do the inspections and enforcement.

The Rana Plaza collapse occurred months before my return to Drapers. I did think at the time that the British press, not for the first time, was accusing the wrong parties. That building failed because entrepreneur Sohel Rana, reportedly a leading figure in the youth wing of the ruling political party, built an unsafe building illegally. The dereliction of duty by the domestic authorities - I am told there are 200 inspectors of possibly dubious experience who check around 5,000 factories - is too easily forgotten as Western brands and retailers are told they must enforce the laws.

To what extent these large and powerful customers ought to be health and safety enforcers is an interesting point. I sometimes get an uncomfortable feeling that it is a step back to colonial days when the Europeans told the locals how to do things. I am certain there are some cowboys among the manufacturing community, but I am also sure there are plenty of smart Bangladeshi business people who run totally adequate facilities.

The uncomfortable reality for poor countries like Bangladesh is that they really do need the business that Western firms bring. Clothing manufacturing is a desirable employment option, if not the only option, for thousands of locals.

Through a series of calamities, and the enforced union of some odd alliances, some real improvements may be coming to Bangladesh. Perhaps the most important result is that the locals themselves now realise they have a huge responsibility for what happens in their own country.

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