Thursday, 9 May 2013

How is overseas aid for Bangladesh spent?

Not on improving health and safety and workers rights but on television shows appears to be the answer.

The death toll following the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh on the 24th April has now risen to 912.  Latest news report from Bangladesh show that, in a separate incident, a further 8 Bangladeshi people have lost their lives in a fire in another Bangladeshi garment factory in the Mirpur industrial district in Dhaka after being overcome by toxic fumes from burning acrylic clothing. But for the fact that the workforce had gone home the death toll from this latest incident could have been far greater.

These 920 deaths, with more likely from the Rana Plaza tragedy, follow an earlier fire in November when 112 workers lost their lives in another garment factory fire in Tazreen.

The loss of 1024 workers in little more than six months is a disgrace and prompted the STUC to have a look at where UK aid for Bangladesh is spent.

An article in the Sunday Telegraph on the 11th November last year questioned where the Department for International Development was investing aid in Bangladesh.

Investment to aid international development in Bangladesh included:
  • £5 million for a Question Time-style show and £546,000 for a phone line announcing what debates are coming up in the country’s legislature.
  • £21.2 million on a road maintenance project, later pulled due to “fiduciary irregularities” after it emerged that less than 10 per cent of the funding had been spent on roads.
  • £22.7 million to bail out debt-laden state-owned businesses. 
  • £13.1 million on training 1,700 civil servants to “develop and deliver pro-poor policy and practice”.
Not one penny seems to have been spent on improving the lives of Bangladeshi workers.  The United Kingdom Government has maintained a silence on this issue, a fact that is hardly surprising given their attacks on workers rights including our well established health and safety regulation and enforcement body, the HSE.

Since the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Bangladesh Government has apparently closed 18 garment factories due to safety concerns.  However Bangladesh reportedly has around 5 million people working in the garment industry in 5000 factories. Those workers are mainly women with many being rural migrants, seeking employment in this low wage industry in order to escape the abject poverty associated with rural life in Bangladesh.

Closing 18 factories out of 5000 would suggest that conditions in these 18 factories were appalling but the workers will have lost their jobs and their livelihoods.  Some may say that this is a price worth paying but we are not in their shoes.  The answer has to be a safer garment industry with higher wages, providing a better standard of living for Bangladeshi workers.

Bangladesh marked this years May Day with demands for improved health and safety, a fitting demand to mark May Day, our day and a day for workers throughout the world.  The United Kingdom Government could ensure that further needless loss of life is prevented by ensuring at least some of this overseas aid is spent on protecting workers. The should also be pressing United Kingdom retailers to provide funding for health and safety initiatives to protect lives and improve the health and wellbeing of garment workers in Bangladesh.

Current talks are taking place between retails and the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Any body arising from these talks will not be independent, it will only deliver what the industry wants and will continue to be driven by what the retailer's buyers are willing to pay for the products.

The United Kingdom Government and those of other European countries have to take a lead and work with international trade unions and NGOs to develop an independent fire and health saefty inspectorate for the industry along the lines suggested in the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement.    This will save lives.

It may mean that we pay more for our clothes but surely that is a price worth paying.

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