Actions need to speak louder than words when it comes to tackling working conditions in the Bangladesh garment industry. And in the wake of the collapse last week of the Rana Plaza building near Dhaka, Mike Flanagan has what he describes as "a modest proposal" for identifying and delisting all unsound factories. 

Amid the millions (going on billions) of words so far written about the Rana Plaza catastrophe, no-one has pointed out how easily it could have been avoided or the toll of dead and injured much reduced.

It is simple to assume that avoiding tragedies in the Bangladesh garment industry requires some dramatic change - such as buyers having to pay more, Bangladesh's government having to become honest and effective, activists having to see reason, or buyers having to source from somewhere else.

But while dramatic changes are needed to make working conditions in the Bangladesh industry adequate, businesses and workers in the country are already doing much to make the industry safe.

A tiny tweak would make a big difference, but requires two things that seem extraordinarily hard to find: common sense and goodwill.

Let's recap on the basics.

Sohel Rana, a neighbourhood thug and political fixer, first opened the four-storey Rana Plaza building, with inadequate foundations, on swampland in 2006. Though some interpret the law differently, it's widely agreed he built it without formal permission. Extensions he added (and paid for) in 2008 and again in 2012 were also in breach of the law.

By 23 April 2013, enough Western buyers ignored Rana Plaza's illegality for about 3,000 people to be employed making garments there. That day cracks appeared - so severe they featured on TV - and local police instructed the building be closed.

On 24 April, Rana appeared, accompanied by the senior government official for the area (the "Thana Nirbahi officer"), who was heard to say: "There's nothing dangerous and factories can be kept open".

Somehow, workers were cajoled to restart production. Almost immediately, the building collapsed, trapping most of the 3,000. Though over 2,000 have been recovered alive (half of them injured), over 400 bodies have been found and several hundred still appear missing.

I believe four fundamental observations then scream out:

Observation 1. The immense death toll would have been a lot less, even zero, if just one of nine things hadn't happened. Though many people share some responsibility for this tragedy, any single one of them could have stopped or limited it.

The only reason people were killed is because all of the following things happened:

  1. An illegal and unsafe building was allowed to open and stay open;
  2. Customers agreed to use the factories in it;
  3. The factory operators ignored the 23 April warnings;
  4. Buyers' representatives in Bangladesh ignored the 23 April warnings
  5. Local "workers rights campaigners" did nothing about the 23 April warnings
  6. Workers, at a time when Bangladeshi owners were publicly complaining about labour shortages and after two highly publicised Bangladeshi building catastrophes in the previous five months, were persuaded to re-start production;
  7. Local government provided spurious support for the safety assurances.

If just one of them hadn't happened, all 400 would certainly still be alive. And most would be alive if it weren't for these two factors:

  1. Not one single buyer representative in Bangladesh ordered production to be suspended;
  2. The Home Minister (the man who blamed the November Tazreen Fashion fire on arsonists and on 25 April blamed opposition demonstrators for bringing the Rana Plaza building down) declined offers of rescue assistance from the UN and major governments.

Now I'm obviously not blaming the workers for being forced back to work. But let's accept for the purposes of argument that neither the Bangladesh government nor its factory owners can be trusted, and will build and certify death traps whatever anyone else does. It's a sweeping generalisation, and might be unfair to a few people, but it's not far from the truth.

Two other groups of people could have intervened in the Rana Plaza events, and didn't. First the buyers.

Observation 2. Some major buyers chose to operate in a manifestly unsafe building - and did nothing to intervene once the danger was known.

Whoever was commissioning clothes in Rana Plaza, there were enough of them to keep 3,000 workers busy. But why they chose to have clothes made there in the first place sounds incomprehensible. By the afternoon of 24 April, Bangladeshi media was awash with the building's appalling history, so it clearly was no secret in the area. Less understandable was that after the building's danger was publicised on Bangladesh TV the night before, not one single buyer's representative seems to have insisted production be suspended.

Just one client making one phone call would have cut the number of people in Rana Plaza the following morning.

But there would have been no-one in the building at all if all clients had refused to use a factory somewhere so unsavoury. So why did they?

In some cases, because the factories had been audited by BSCI (the Business Social Compliance Initiative), whose code of compliance is full of detail about where workers can store their food - but ignores whether the building is structurally safe (or has even been built legally).

"BSCI social audits were performed in the two factories; however audits do not include building construction or integrity. BSCI therefore relies on the local authorities to implement and control national building regulations", it says.

In Bangladesh?

But BSCI clients are hard-headed business people. If they'd actually read the 2,800 word BSCI Code of Conduct they'd know it was as much use in safeguarding Bangladeshi workers as a chocolate fire poker.

Some buyers clearly have read it. Among those not yet found to have been working at Rana Plaza is Walmart, despite claims made by Rana Plaza factories on their websites.

Walmart, usually so criticised, told suppliers that anyone using an unapproved factory after 1 March would stop doing business with the retailer. It also made it clear there were special rules for Bangladesh - and those rules ruled Rana Plaza out on at least half-a-dozen grounds. It looks as if Walmart's unyielding toughness with suppliers is a much better safeguard for workers than the "sweet reason" philosophy adopted by some of its competitors.

Another buyer not found at Rana Plaza was H&M - unsurprisingly since it had just published its supplier list. If you're going to publish such a list, you're probably not going to "rely on the local authorities to implement and control national building regulations" in Bangladesh.

Walmart and H&M are very different businesses - but on this crucial issue they seem to have shared a dose of common sense.

Other buyers, in my view, could be helped in developing a similar approach by cultivating a surprising potential ally: activists.

Observation 3: Between 23-25 April activists seem to have behaved with greater concern for discrediting businesses than saving Bangladeshi lives.

Within hours of the Rana Plaza collapse they had:

  • Fed Bangladeshi media with details of illegal construction;
  • Disinterred labels and contract details from the Rana Plaza wreckage;
  • Helped organise violent attacks on the (also illegally built) headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Makers and Exporters' Association (BGMEA) and on garment factories that had not closed in sympathy.

It seems reasonable to conclude those activists shared my scepticism about the goodwill of Bangladeshi factory owners. So why did they not picket the building early on 24 April in case Sohel Rana decided to force workers into the factories? This would have been more useful than interrupting the rescue efforts to dig out labels and contract details from a building where thousands of people remained trapped.

What if all those people documenting the building's history on 24 April had done so, publicly, months beforehand? What if they'd put the information on the Web, got workers to feed in details of dodgy factories' current buyers, and then confronted those buyers with the real truth about the places their garments were being made?

What if, instead of demonstrations outside shops in London and New York "demanding" compensation, the protestors carried lists of death traps where the garments were being made?

And what if, instead of resisting the publication of their supplier lists, retailers and brands like Primark, Mango and Joe Fresh actively encouraged activists and workers to get them the kind of information BSCI and SAI can't cope with?

Within weeks garments would stop being made in unsafe buildings.

So why isn't that happening? Ultimately, I suspect, because buyers and global activist groups are labouring under three delusions:

Observation 4: Some of the assumptions in the debates between buyers and major worker representatives groups are misconceived.

Especially:

  • Buyers are reluctant to reveal details of where they buy from. But workers often know this better than anyone - and, properly tapped, factory workers can be an enormous help in controlling subcontractors.
  • Buyers and charities often think errant manufacturers shouldn't be fired, because this would punish the workers. Often true. But not, according to local trade associations, in Bangladesh. Just a week before the Rana Plaza collapse, BGMEA leaders claimed they were manufacturing 25% less than their capacity allowed because they couldn't find enough workers. But there hasn't been a single reported example of a Bangladesh garment worker unable to find a job as a result of Walmart's rules kicking in on 1 March.
  • Activist groups claim errant manufacturers can't afford to repair dangerous buildings. But Sohel Rana could afford to double the size of his building since 2010. So could Delwar Hossein, who illegally extended the Tazreen building where 120 died in November. They could afford the associated bribes too.

Observation 5. Immediate, universal, action is more important than someone's idea of the perfect answer.

Activists have been touting for years a Bangladesh Building Fire and Safety Agreement that retailers and brands are reluctant to commit to.

Buyers can't agree anything among themselves.

The EU says it is "considering appropriate action, including through the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP)... in order to incentivise responsible management of supply chains" - diplomat-speak for "We'll cut off Bangladesh's duty free access".

As its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said of Rana Plaza: "The alleged criminality around the building's construction is finally becoming clear to the world".

The threat is serious given that 60% of Bangladesh's garment exports go to the EU - about half the country's entire exports - and a quarter of its whole industrial workforce depends on selling duty-free garments to the there.

But the EU isn't designed for fast action, and taking away Bangladesh's duty-free status is a long-winded process - with a very uncertain outcome.

Lady Ashton's own party, for example, is busy trying to reverse the UK's decision to switch its GBP14m ($21m) annual aid donation for South Africa to poorer countries. So the decision even to think about abolishing the EUR1bn a year subsidy the EU's duty-free concession pumps into Bangladesh's minuscule economy is likely to enrage every single aid lobbyist in Europe.

And it would take at least two years to get through the EU's decision-making systems - by which time Lady Ashton will be retired, and I wouldn't bet on the proposal ever being enacted.

Who knows how many more will die while all that's going on? So here's the Flanswer: a modest proposal for identifying and delisting all the dodgy factories.

The Flanswer

  • The major buyers need to agree some general principles immediately.
  • Those principles should be:
  1. Bangladesh is a unique - and urgent - case. Procedures in Bangladesh don't necessarily apply anywhere else.
  2. No unsafe buildings. As from 30 June 2013, no independently verified safety certificate: no business.
  3. Any subcontractor found using an uncertified business gets fired. Preferably by all the major buyers, throughout every buyer's system.
  4. The general principles of the Walmart conditions are accepted as the minimum standards applying to all buyers in Bangladesh.
  5. Deal with the problems of how owners pay for upgrades and what to do with redundant workers when they happen. If we can believe the BGMEA, the workers will get hired somewhere else; nowhere else can currently match Bangladesh on price.
  6. Buyers' loyalty is to the workers making garments on their behalf: not to their subcontractors, not to the factory owners, and most certainly not to the owners' associations.
  7. Job number one for all buyer staff in Bangladesh is to stop any more catastrophes. Any manager is authorised to stop production in an unsafe factory, and supplier contracts specify this.
  • Issues of union recognition and decent pay are important. But they're not central to the building safety issue, and can be kept till later.
  • In practice, buyers should actively encourage worker whistle-blowing. Indeed, they should donate a small sum, and collectively provide a small admin centre and IT expertise, for Bangladeshi activists to set up a website with details of all factories, and their known construction and permitting history. Workers should be encouraged to input data, anonymously, of jobs going through the system.
  • Eventually, buyers will control what's being made for them with conventional staff. But right now, there are 4m Bangladeshi garment workers with far better access to information about the buildings where garments are being made than anyone in the buying organisations can possibly have. Each of these 4m people is more interested in having a safe building than any buyer or activist group can ever be - or than BSCI could even dream could be possible. They constitute an enormous asset for buyers prepared to use them. 

Some might call this guerilla compliance. It will be rough and ready. But it'll be ready quickly.

And isn't that a lot better than the kind of compliance where storage for workers' sandwiches matters more than whether the workers will still be alive at lunchtime?