March 7, 2014
Alexandra Dobson specialises in criminal law, and has a particular interest in corporate manslaughter and corporate homicide. She founded the Business Accountability and Responsibility Centre in 2009. Alexandra recently visited Dhaka and saw for herself the extent of the devastation at the factory sites.
This article was part of an International Women’s Day feature. You can read all the features here
The price that female garment workers in Bangladesh pay to support their families is tragically high. Women and girls, often from impoverished rural areas in Bangladesh, move to the capital city, Dhaka, in search of a better life for themselves and their families. They spend long hours at their sewing machines, earning on average around £30 a month but as they do so they are exposed to some of the most dangerous working conditions possible.
For the female workers in Bangladesh, the garment trade provides the promise of employment and the opportunity to support extended families but it can also extract a deadly price.
In April last year, the Rana Plaza factory collapse saw over 1,100 workers (mostly women), losing their lives when the building they were working in collapsed around them. It is still unclear exactly how many died, as record keeping at the factory appears to have been seriously flawed. A further 2,515 workers were eventually rescued many with serious injuries and some of the women thought to be working in the building are still missing. The building collapsed with the workers inside, even though major cracks had appeared in the structure on the day prior to the accident. Fears over the safety of the building had been raised by workers – but they were told to continue to work.
Accidents in such modern-day ‘sweat shops’ are not unusual; as well as having the dubious sobriquet of having the deadliest factory accident in history, the Bangladesh garment trade has a terrifying record of accidents involving workers. In 2012 for instance, the Tazreen Factory fire in 2012 killed 112 workers (again the majority of whom were women and girls), when the building they were working in caught fire. Those within were locked inside and had no method of escape when the fire broke out. The factory had been built illegally and the winding back streets leading to it were almost impossible for fire engines to navigate.
The response from the fashion industry in the West where most of the garments are sold has been to promise to help to change this appalling safety record and there has been some compensation offered to workers. Progress is slow however and poverty and deprivation continue to be a major factor for many women working in the industry. Those who want to make claims are often hampered by their own illiteracy and by the complex bureaucracy that surrounds making a claim. At the same time textile manufacturer in Bangladesh is the main source of exports and supports a fast-growing economy and there is an inherent tension between the need to grow business and to provide regulation that protects the workforce.
The Business Accountability and Responsibility Centre (BARC), is launching a research project with the aim of better understanding the legal response to the safety issues. This will look at both criminal liability and civil claims linked to how and under what circumstances compensation is paid to the families of the victims.
Researchers will also consider the complexities of the supply chain and the broader issues of corporate social responsibility on the part of companies in the European Union and USA who are major buyers of the garments. The Centre will be working with academics in Bangladesh and across a range of disciplines within the University of South Wales.
BARC will also draw on the close links with legal practitioners to assist with the project. For the female workers in Bangladesh, the garment trade provides the promise of employment and the opportunity to support extended families but it can also extract a deadly price.
As women globally celebrate International Women’s Day and the enormous progress that has been made for some of us, the plight of those whose working lives are accompanied by the threat of serious injury or death must give us all pause for thought. As we buy our clothes from High Street fashion chains it is worth us all re- considering where and under what circumstances those clothes were manufactured.
If you are interested in taking part in the research please contact Alexandra Dobson.