On April 24th, 2013, Bangladesh faced its worst industrial disaster. An eight-story garment factory collapsed, resulting in the loss of more than 1100 lives. A few days after the incident, Christian Amanpour of CNN interviewed the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, where she responded to the crisis by saying "Anywhere in the world, accidents can happen. You cannot predict anything." Except that in this particular case, law enforcement officials explicitly ordered evacuation the day before the accident.
Survivors and witnesses recall that local police officials ordered factory owners to immediately evacuate the premises after cracks were discovered on the walls, a day before the collapse. Instead, these workers faced threats of losing their jobs if they failed to come to work. This highlights either the inability or unwillingness of the local authorities to enforce the rule of law.
The ease with which the factory owners were able to ignore the directives of the law enforcement authorities is a cause for grave concern. It clearly demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the authorities when it comes to protecting the general masses.
The apparent crisis in regulatory affairs in Bangladesh needs to be addressed sooner than later. There are various actors and each has a role to play in addressing the workers' rights and protection. The actors include the factory owners, international branded buyers, and most importantly, the government. The government can play one of the most important roles in upholding and properly enforcing the rule of law, decreasing the scope for negligence and abuse by officials pursuing their own interest. Appropriate and effective enforcement requires that there be no opportunity for public or private meddling, and that regulatory proceedings are conducted in a timely way that respects the due process of law.
The first graph below illustrates the efficiency of Regulatory Enforcement (factor 6.1 in the WJP Rule of Law Index) among low-income countries included in the Rule of Law Index 2012-2013. All factor scores range between 0 and 1, where 1 corresponds to the highest possible score. Among the 15 low-income countries, Bangladesh has the 3rd highest GDP per capita, and yet it ranks 11th in terms of efficiency in regulatory enforcement. Improper Influence on Regulatory Enforcement (factor 6.2) is portrayed in the second graph and under this classification Bangladesh is ranked the lowest.
A spokesman of the US Trade Representative claims the Obama administration is concerned about the workers' rights situation, and has repeatedly conveyed these concerns to the highest levels of the Government of Bangladesh. There is also the looming threat that the United States will suspend Bangladesh's Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, which allows many exporting developing countries duty-free access to certain products in the US.
It is time for the Government of Bangladesh to take these issues seriously and implement necessary steps. The $19 billion export-oriented garment industry is relying on its leaders, and it is time for action.
*Part I of a blog post concerning an earlier factory disaster in Bangladesh can be viewed here.