Contrasting responses of Irish companies to Bangladesh factory collapse

Over six months have passed since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 people died. The factory housed a number of companies manufacturing garments for Irish and international brands, including Primark, Mango and H&M. This was no one-off tragedy in the developing world’s garment industry, but it was the large loss of life which attracted worldwide attention. Since the factory collapse, several things have happened:

  • More factory workers have died: eight died in a factory fire in May; seven were killed in a fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka in October; two workers were killed and 30 injured at a protest demanding better wages. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch put it bluntly: “Bangladeshi workers continue to die while making cheap clothes for Western brands.”
  • Consumer habits appear not to have changed, despite the fact those who died were working making clothes specifically for Western consumers. This is according to Richard Lambert, a former editor of the Financial Times, who said he was “amazed about how little impact the disaster in Bangladesh has had on consumers”.
  • 94% of victims claim not to have received any sick pay or compensation so far, according to Action Aid Bangladesh.

There have been a few positive developments, however. Primark, which is headquartered in Dublin and trades as Penneys in Ireland, has offered to pay long-term compensation to victims or their families. Paul Lister, the head of corporate governance at Primark’s parent company, Associated British Foods, acknowledged the company’s responsibility:

“We looked on in horror. We knew our clothes were in the building, and we accepted responsibility”

Primark is also one of a number of retailers that have signed the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord which is aimed at improving the conditions of factories in Bangladesh. In recent weeks, the Bangladeshi authorities have begun some limited factory fire and safety inspections.

Dunnes Stores, on the other hand, has not signed up to the Accord, even though it also sources garments from Bangladesh, although there is no evidence to suggest that the Rana Plaza complex was part of its supply chain. Clean Clothes Campaign Ireland is actively campaigning on this, and Derek Nolan TD considers Dunnes’ failure to be “extremely disappointing“. Why the different responses? A large part of it may be because the Irish Government has taken a hands off approach and left it to companies themselves to decide whether they will be bound by the Fire and Safety Agreement. Minister Richard Bruton noted the EU’s concern with labour conditions in Bangladesh and welcomed the accord, saying:

However, it is not an international agreement. It is for individual companies to decide whether they will participate in the agreement.

The policy remains one of “encouraging” companies to exercise their corporate social responsibility, but as Sean Crowe TD rightly observed, “Self-regulation is clearly not working in this region”. There is a growing expectation that home States, such as Ireland, must ensure that companies respect human rights in their supply chain and when operating overseas, especially where labour conditions are so bad as to be life-threatening.

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