Human Rights in Ireland welcomes this guest post from Dr Fiona Donson. Fiona is a lecturer at UCC Faculty of Law specialising in Human Rights, Administrative Law and Criminal Law. She was formally a human rights worker in Cambodia where her experience included health and employment rights projects in Garment factories and child rights projects for UNICEF and the European Commission. This is a cross post from the CCJHR Blog.
The tragic events in Bangladesh last week once again threw a spotlight on the harsh reality of sourcing products from developing nations. Yet it remains to be seen if this latest disaster will have any impact on the policies of transnational corporations and their customers seeking low priced goods. Today, International Labour Day, the official death toll from the collapse of the Rana building near Dhaka was has passed 400, but estimates place the casualties as being over four times that figure. The facts of the disaster are in many ways typical of the story of factory operations in many developing nations. A largely unregulated industry operating in unregulated buildings, with limited health and safety laws and/or implementation, cramped working conditions, poor pay, and with limited unionisation.
Bangladesh has one of the lowest levels of labour unit cost in the world with a living way currently standing at US$64 a month. It therefore operates at the bottom end of the garment industry in an environment that regularly results in tragedies. As Human Rights Watch noted this disaster is a new event:
The Rana building collapse is the latest in a long list of factory building tragedies in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said. In April 2005, 73 garment workers died in a factory collapse in Savar. In February 2006, 18 workers were killed in a garment factory collapse in Dhaka. In June 2010, 25 people were killed in a building collapse in Dhaka. In November 2012, more than 100 workers died in a fire at a factory in Dhaka.
These large scale tragedies however, overshadow the day to day cost of cheap labour.
Yet Bangladesh has failed to come to terms with the problems within the sector. Human Rights Watch highlight that they have ongoing and well recognised problems with labour inspections – employing just 18 inspectors to monitor an industry employing over 3 million people. Companies are given prior warnings of inspections and the consequences of breaching the labour law are small and unlikely to act as a deterrent in the face of profits – the most common punishment is a fine of US$13 per case.
In this context, the role of unions is critical but the government has consistently worked to limit the right of workers to unionise. The factories within the Rana building were not unionised, and it is likely that no union would have stood by and allowed their workers to enter a building that had previously been evacuated on safety grounds. Yet, Continue reading