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Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Page: 3352

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Werriwa) (19:58): For nearly 30 years the Bhopal Union Carbide tragedy was the worst industrial accident. Unfortunately, on 24 April, the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, claiming 1,127 lives, took that record off Bhopal. We are talking about an event that is not strange and not unusual in Bangladesh. In fact 1,800 factory workers in the garment industry have died over the last year.

The garment industry is not an insignificant industry for Bangladesh. Eighty per cent of its exports are from this industry and it generates $20 billion a year. It is a situation where the industry is so ramshackle and so uninspected that estimates of factories vary from 4½ thousand to 6½ thousand. The current wage is $38 a month, and it is the third largest exporter of clothing in the world.

Some of the background to this concerns the failure to really police the industry. In the last week or so four million workers have supposedly been given the right to unionise. That supposedly has been the case up to now, but employers had the right to inspect lists, and victimised anyone who did not join.

The situation in the country is perhaps best indicated by Commerce Minister Mohammed Quader's concession that 'we wanted the jobs and therefore we did not do enough to discourage the worst style of employer'. The style of employer was Sohel Rana, who owned this particular building. In the words of Ashraf Uddin Khan, Vice-President of the Dhaka district of the Awami League, Rana was the head of an underworld gang involved in drugs and extortion and illegal land seizures. In the incident on 23 April when workers complained about cracks in the building he sent them back and was quoted in the media as saying: 'This is not a crack. The plaster on the wall is broken. Nothing more. It is not a problem.' Unfortunately that led to the deaths of 1,117 people, and the heroic survival of Reshma Begum, a worker who survived in the rubble for 17 days.

This is not a lone incident in this country. In November 2012 a fire in the Tazreen factory claimed 112 lives. In that incident there had been the illegal closure of factory emergency exits and floors had been added to the building illegally. This is a daily occurrence in Dhaka. In this very same case I am talking about, at the Rana Plaza, once again storeys were added onto the building illegally and also heavy generators were placed in the building illegally, where the building was not designed to support them.

Mr Rana, the person involved in this building, typifies one of the problems in the country. His family has been associated with both of the competing political parties, the Awami League and the BNP, switching as is convenient depending on who is governing the country. The country is unfortunately characterised by a lack of policing.

In recent weeks we have seen the announcement of a minimum wage hearing. We have seen a situation where there have been some latent moves. We have seen European companies sign up to make sure they have factory inspections in the companies that supply them. But, unfortunately, the infamous Wal-Mart corporation and a number of US corporations are saying they will not sign up to anything that will be legally binding. They will sign up to things they run themselves. They will sign up to things that will be ineffective. In Europe we have seen Marks & Spencer, the big Swedish exporting company Hennes & Mauritz, major Spanish corporation Inditex, Benetton and so on sign up. But American companies remain very reluctant.

To give you another indication of what we are facing in this country, and the need for the world to be interested and perhaps for our foreign aid to look at helping the Bangladeshis to improve their factory inspectorate, we have the incident of April 2012 where union activist Aminul Islam was found murdered after a few weeks previously succeeding in negotiations with the major US fashion house Tommy Hilfiger. He was found murdered, with signs of torture, including the breaking of all of his toes and holes through his legs. He had noticed a police van near where he was praying in a mosque and earlier had expressed concerns about his safety.

We need the world to make sure the fashion houses of the world are responsible and that it is not simply a matter of going to Bangladesh because wages there are cheaper than in China, which is really saying something. We need these corporations to be socially responsible.

House adjourned at 20:04