Dina M Siddiqi 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the women and men labouring in Bangladesh’s garment factories – at least those still in operation – faced a stark choice: starve to death by sheltering in place or risk dying from the virus by returning to the shop floor. This compulsion to work that comes at the risk of exposure to death was not exceptional by any means.

Pandemic conditions amplified and made more visible a structural feature built into certain kinds of employment under capitalism, as Sobhi Samour argues in the case of Palestinian labour in Israel. Indeed, over the past three decades, Bangladesh’s apparel workers have routinely negotiated various iterations of this conundrum, at times with catastrophic consequences.  So it was that on the morning of 24 April 2013, workers of five factories located in the Rana Plaza building, whose upper floors had been illegally constructed and which had developed serious cracks the day before, calculated the risks of entering – or not – the condemned premises. Under acute pressure from management to meet an international production deadline, fearing dismissal if they refused, and against their better judgment, most workers reluctantly complied. As is well known, over 1100 never made it back home.

Given this contradiction at the heart of global labour, how should we assess the state of Bangladesh’s garment industry in this 50th year of independence? What are the common threads that bind the bodies of factory workers during the pandemic in 2020 to those who perished in the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013?

That ‘garments’, as it is colloquially referred to, is a success by conventional measures is beyond doubt. As the second largest exporter of garments, the industry has put Bangladesh on the global economic stage. It is the site of national pride and promise, the bridge to the nation’s attaining middle-income status. It is a key driver of the country’s vaunted economic growth rate. Over the last four decades, a rich field of scholarship has emerged devoted to measuring the extent of female ‘empowerment’ (or degree of exploitation) afforded by employment in garment factories. More recently, a robust body of research has focused on the merits and drawbacks of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety (henceforth the Accord) introduced in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013.

Two features of the literature are worth noting. First, regardless of ideological propensity, and with some exceptions, research in this flourishing field tends to take as its analytical unit the self-contained and bounded nation state; it follows that any problems derive from the ‘local’, so that solutions too are delimited to national borders. Second, there has been minimal interrogation of a development model that privileges abstract notions of growth over the long-term well-being of those who labour in the name of the nation.

This short essay begins with an examination of the work that such methodological nationalism does, especially in obscuring critical nodes of power in global garment supply chain production. What does a narrowly territorialised framing actually accomplish? What relations are made visible and which are rendered illegible? What are the implicit assumptions on which this nationalised framing relies for coherence?

Over the last four decades, a rich field of scholarship has emerged devoted to measuring the extent of female ‘empowerment’ (or degree of exploitation) afforded by employment in garment factories.

One way to address these questions is through a close reading of the Bangladesh Accord – arguably the one silver lining to emerge from the debris of Rana Plaza – and unpacking the logic undergirding its various stipulations. As this essay shows, the particular narrative of capital around which the story of Rana Plaza and the Accord is built – of a backward, corrupt and deficient cultural space in the Global South, in need of reform from Northern brands and buyers – obscures critical global entanglements and connections involved in the making of the very working conditions that the Accord sought to reform.

Pandemic conditions have made it impossible to ignore the imbrications of global/local that were otherwise covered up by the dominant narrative that anchors transnational governance initiatives such as the Accord. As elsewhere in the Global South, the local and global are co-constituted in highly asymmetrical ways in Bangladesh’s garment industry. By extension and most significantly, this essay shows that brands and retailers in global supply chains do not simply profit from pre-existing “poor” labour conditions that they then seek to reform but actively enable the (re)production of such conditions. Without minimising the very real problems of institutional oversight and weak practices inside Bangladesh, it is urgent to unpack the imperial-colonial understandings on which this particular narrative of capital and female empowerment rests. This means, in addition, engaging more critically with the taken for granted development as a growth model that shapes the policy and activist landscape.

Experiments with the Accord

The much-celebrated Accord’s arrival – formulated without consulting either the national government or local suppliers – occasioned considerable international excitement. With its rolling out, Bangladesh reprised its role as a site of developmental experimentation, this time in the interests of ethical global production arrangements. Framed as a radical departure from conventional corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, the Accord was widely hailed as a game-changer, an innovative model with great promise for application elsewhere. Such expectations centred on the Accord’s promise to rein in “regulatory neglect” linked to so-called footloose capital, as sociologist Youbin Kang writes in her article ‘The rise, demise, and replacement of the Bangladesh experiment in transnational labour regulation’.

The Accord built – selectively – on existing efforts to protect workers from fatal events such as the Spectrum factory collapse of 2005 and the Tazreen fire of November 2012. It brought together clothing brands and international labour unions (and their local affiliates) under the aegis of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The primary objective was to upgrade factory buildings and facilities so as to prevent a repeat of Rana Plaza. Audits were extended to three tiers of suppliers who would face termination of their business relationships with other Accord members if they failed to comply with Accord determined building or electrical safety standards.

Three features garnered particular global approbation.  First, this was billed as the first collaborative effort by otherwise competitive global brands to address safety issues in supplier factories.  Second, signatories were contractually liable for safety in the factories from which they sourced: that is, unlike previous initiatives, the commitment to worker safety was no longer voluntary.  Finally, the Accord appeared to be a truly multi-stakeholder initiative, one in which unions and workers’ representatives were fully incorporated into its governance structures.

In contrast, the Global North (buyers, retailers, consumers) inhabits a neutral space from which it aspires to enact ethical business practices.

As noted earlier, at least in the initial stage, the remediation process initiated by the Accord explicitly excluded the Bangladesh government and the powerful industrial body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).  Bangladeshi trade-union leaders were also absent in the initial deliberations, though those with international affiliations were quickly added. Many Bangladeshi suppliers chafed at what they perceived to be unfair conditions imposed arbitrarily.  Several factories, including Smart Jeans, filed lawsuits challenging the legality of the Accord.  In 2018, the courts found in their favour, leading to the formal closure of operations.

Much ink has been spilled on the pros and cons of the Accord. Among other things, critics have noted that it never had grassroots labour representation, despite claims to the contrary. Nor did it explicitly contain provisions to deal with issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace, since it was focused exclusively on building inspections (these were often addressed through worker complaint mechanisms). Others point to the way national sovereignty was undermined in an arrangement that did not directly incorporate any government institutions other than in an advisory or supporting role. Further, questions of financing – of who would pay for remediation of buildings – were fuzzy to begin with and remained a point of contention throughout. Notably, relatively few critics have challenged the dominant narrative that the Accord represented a departure from the CSR model.

Rarely noted in these otherwise rich discussions are the implications of the Accord’s adopting a narrowly national lens, with its stipulations only relevant for Bangladesh. Understood to be a “transnational solution to the failures of national safety regulations (emphasis added),” as anthropologist Rebecca Prentice writes in her 2021 essay ‘Labour Rights from Labour Wrongs? Transnational Compensation and the Spatial Politics of Labour Rights after Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza Garment Factory Collapse’, the link between “regulatory neglect” and “footloose capital” has disappeared.

What is the ideological work performed by limiting the scope of the arrangement to the borders of Bangladesh? What are the assumptions that make it possible to frame the Rana Plaza collapse, and working conditions in general in Bangladeshi garment factories, as purely national, spatially and territorially contained? What happens when the interdependencies of the supply chain are brought to bear on questions of accountability and culpability?

Nationalising the problem disappears the co-constitution of local and global, writing out the supply chain, in effect. Once Rana Plaza is understood to be an exclusively ‘local’ problem, the analytic frame renders invisible existing transnational unequal power relations among different actors along the supply chain and the effects of such asymmetry on Bangladeshi suppliers (and those who labour for them). The erasure of “the extreme pressures suppliers face from brands to produce large quantities, at the lowest price, and within the shortest time possible”, as researcher Sanchita Banerjee Saxena writes, leaves no reason to ask why the five garment factories housed in Rana Plaza decided to continue production when the bank, shops and other establishments in the complex closed down. That decision was by no means a purely local one. Nor is it necessary, in this framing, to ask why workers complied, against their better judgment, with management’s orders. Fear of forfeiting outstanding wages was not a purely local problem attributable only to the greed of local capitalists. It was equally a reflection of the operations of garment supply chain protocol in which payment to suppliers occurs only after shipments have been delivered. In other words, the logic of the Accord hinged on a basic misrecognition or writing out of ‘the problem’ it was designed to resolve.

Since its stipulations applied only to Bangladesh, calling the Accord transnational is somewhat of a misnomer, revealing a basic paradox in its constitution.

This erasure is made possible by a discursive environment animated by enduring tropes of developmental lag and backwardness, in which the Global South (here Bangladesh) is the site of pathology, corruption and bad governance. In contrast, the Global North (buyers, retailers, consumers) inhabits a neutral space from which it aspires to enact ethical business practices. This in turn, reinforces narratives of the civilising influence of capital and associated fetishisms of modernisation. Thus, violations of labour rights can be attributed to individual and collective bad faith ‘locally’ or cultural backwardness and intransigence.

Once ‘the problem’ is spatially contained, there is no need for a systemic or transnational analysis; remediation and monitoring supplier factories become the solution to protecting workers’ rights.  At the same, questions of accountability and responsibility can be displaced entirely onto Bangladeshi factory owners and the national government.

Further, the metaphor of a chain, corresponding to an image of all links as equal, works to obscure the distribution of power among differentially located bodies across disparate spaces brought into relation through transnational production. In practice, supply chains constitute a set of highly spatialised and deeply hierarchical relations of power, intimately shaped by imperial and neocolonial histories. With expanding capital accumulation, global chains have become increasingly unequal socially and spatially.

A narrative structure in which countries of the Global South are constructed as the closed container for the problem of labour legitimates a disciplinary gaze ‘from above’ that monitors and surveils the actions of suppliers and national governments.  The writing out or erasure of supply chain exigencies and dependencies serves to privilege the authority of global capitalists to dictate from above how and what to ‘fix’. Assumptions of corporate benevolence (which accompany the bracketing out of supply chains) allow for ‘blame’ (along with risk) to be redistributed further down the supply chain.

By extension, questions of safety and labour rights are delimited to the realm of the technical rather than the political, thereby excising entanglements in transnational connectivities and relations of power. Rendering technical – to use Tania Murray Li’s evocative words – or reducing to technical matters issues that are deeply political – has a long genealogy in mainstream development processes, as numerous anthropologists and others have noted.

Since its stipulations applied only to Bangladesh, calling the Accord transnational is somewhat of a misnomer, revealing a basic paradox in its constitution. The agreement laid out national level mandates for an industry explicitly transnational in its dependencies, producing contradictions and double binds. The threat of boycott and the risk of capital flight merely heightened the economic power of buyers at the top rungs of global garment supply chains. On the one hand, brands claim that they deplore exploitative conditions of labour and insist on improvements; on the other, the same multinational corporations threaten to move operations to other countries if higher national wages cut into their profit margins.

Finally, it is essential to note that the logic built into the Accord not only obscures deeply asymmetrical structures of globalised (and racialised) supply chains, but actively reinforces such inequalities. So for instance, the same brands that insisted on improved building and fire safety – in the absence of which they would take their orders elsewhere – continued to take full advantage of the newly vulnerable position of Bangladeshi suppliers after 2013. Between 2015 and 2017, cotton prices rose by 22 percent while the price paid to Bangladeshi producers of cotton trousers fell by 10 percent according to Mark Anner of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights. In other words, at the same time that Bangladeshi factories owners’ cost of production went up, Euro-American brands negotiated lower purchasing prices and demanded improved working conditions.  Anner has also calculated that between 2011 and 2016, the average prices paid to Bangladeshi supplier factories declined by 13 percent while lead times declined by about 8 percent from 2011 to 2015. The relationship between these purchasing practices and declining working conditions, including building upkeep, has been well-documented by Anner and others. Bangladeshi suppliers, in a bid to compensate for higher production costs, and lower prices, invariably pare down their workforce, increase forced overtime, and set unrealistic individual production targets, among other things.

That this kind of profiteering takes place under the conditions of contemporary capitalism should hardly come as a surprise. What is striking is how rarely this phenomenon is commented on, and how infrequently studies such as Anner’s are taken into consideration in scholarship or labour advocacy on Bangladesh.  This raises a critical, if neglected question: what counts as unethical and scandalous (collapsing buildings) and what is assumed to be natural and beneficial (maximising profits regardless of costs to others)?

Hiding behind the supply chain

Even as it unleashed death and devastation on entire communities, COVID-19 had powerfully illuminating effects on our social worlds. It forced governments and publics to reckon with the classed, racialised, and gendered inequalities that structure economies and everyday lives. Globally, the ‘pandemic effect’ made it impossible to ignore the structural contradictions built into global apparel supply chains. It has also gone a long way to puncture a series of myths around gender and capitalism or least rendered ‘known’ facts harder to ignore.

In Bangladesh, the mass cancellation of orders – some already shipped or under production – brought into focus the striking power differential between Euro-American retailers and national suppliers, and the damaging effects on labour of this asymmetry. The breaking of these binding contracts by retailers stood in stark contrast to years of self-representation as ethical practitioners, highlighting an enduring emphasis on profit.  Retailers exited the contracts by invoking the contested and relatively obscure force majeure clause, used in general for ‘uncontrollable’ and unanticipated events. At the same time, the pandemic threw into relief chronic weaknesses of the Bangladeshi garment industry itself and the frequent blurring of lines between the industry and a deeply authoritarian state with highly repressive laws. Most obviously, the pandemic revealed the basic expendability of labouring bodies.

Under these circumstances, promoting labour rights through market mechanisms such as boycotts or CSR strategies not only privatises rights but also narrows the space of struggle and what can be constituted as human rights.

What the pandemic also exposed is how much has not changed since the Rana Plaza collapse.  The structural continuities with pre-2013 working conditions are worth revisiting. In the apparel sector, manufacturers are ultimately responsible for all costs incurred, including raw materials until products are shipped. This arrangement was difficult for small factories to fulfil even pre-pandemic. Pandemic conditions magnified this vulnerability, leaving small enterprises with minimal or no cash. Many workers had not been paid for months, despite working full time before the pandemic. The sheer volume of cancellations, delayed or heavily discounted orders forced many Bangladeshi factories to cut costs or shut down operations. By March 2020, over a million garment workers were retrenched or furloughed. Confronted with deep losses and uncertain futures, some factory authorities forced workers to submit formal resignations to avoid payment of severance benefits. Those ‘lucky’ enough to be employed faced unrealistic increases in individual production quotas, and even more forced and unpaid overtime than in the past. As of July 2021, labour rights group Clean Clothes Campaign estimated that Bangladeshi apparel sector workers were owed USD 844 million in either wages or severance payments since the pandemic had begun.

Acutely aware of the health and other risks involved, and with minimal or no social safety nets, desperate garment workers have little choice but to be out in the streets (or on the shop floor) if they and their families are not to starve. Paid below the living wage and enmeshed in a web of debts, few have a financial cushion on which to fall back.

Fear of non-payment of wages, retaliatory dismissals, and unannounced factory closures constitute enduring realities that bind labouring bodies in this industry across time and space. Uncertainty and fear are structuring forces in the everyday life of garment workers. So it is that garment factory workers who had left for the safety and affordability of home following the first national lockdown rushed back to Dhaka when instructed by individual managers and supervisors. With no public transport available, many had to walk hundreds of kilometres on foot, only to be sent back after several days. This distressing scenario played out twice, highlighting the indifference of policy makers to the workers’ plight. Once more in public spaces, garment workers found themselves newly expendable and stigmatised as potential carriers of COVID-19, their forced mobility interpreted as deliberate irresponsibility by landlords and relatives alike.

Blurring the exceptional and the normal

The general impulse has been to treat the Rana Plaza collapse an exception or aberration in the operation of an otherwise neutral, morally benign and efficient supply-chain production network.  Coded comparisons to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 in the USA implicitly point to an evolutionary model of progress, in which Bangladesh is simply at an earlier stage of development. This too allows for the misrecognition of such labour practices as temporary, or an aberration rather than systemic and constitutive, reproducing neoliberal logic. Yet as Rebecca Prentice writes, what happened at Rana Plaza was “consistent with the ongoing realities of the global garment industry, where multinational brands and retailers demand high levels of production quality and speed at extremely low prices.” As indicated earlier, there is much research showing that purchasing practices in the supply chain directly impact working conditions in sites of production. The combination of fluctuating demand and hierarchical supply chain protocols translates into extreme working conditions and less than living wages that are often outstanding.  Such working conditions constitute an assemblage that has been characterised by the feminist political economist Allesandra Mezzadri as a “sweatshop regime”.

To recognise the persistence of such practices is to call attention to the ways supply chain production relies upon and reproduces the uneven development characteristic of global capitalist accumulation.  It is equally critical to acknowledge that brands and retailers in global supply chains do not simply profit from poor labour conditions that are pre-existing, but are actively complicit in enabling the reproduction of such conditions. As is well-known, by seeking out lowest possible labour costs, so-called footloose capital cheapens labour by forcing nations to compete against one another for the lowest wages. The same competition plays out within the country, with individual factory owners vying for precious contracts. In this environment, to raise wages is to work against individual interest and undermine the nation’s supposed comparative advantage.

Why, for instance, is it not considered scandalous for brands to unilaterally lower prices paid to Bangladeshi suppliers post-Rana Plaza? How and why is it legal for brands to renege on their contracts during the pandemic?

Under these circumstances, promoting labour rights through market mechanisms such as boycotts or CSR strategies not only privatises rights but also narrows the space of struggle and what can be constituted as human rights. Only the most egregious cases that carry a global moral urgency become worthy of activist attention. The focus on extreme violations, centred on the individual’s rights violation, crowds out ‘ordinary’ claims around pay or rates or working hours.  Further, the emphasis on spectacularised violence serves to normalise everyday working conditions.

The ‘problem’ then is not only of regulation – private or public – but of the very structure of the supply chain and its constitutive paradoxes. For even if the Accord had been fully implemented, with ‘buy in’ from suppliers and a unified labour movement, it would not have been able to prevent the misery and suffering of workers caused by the massive disruptions in the global garment supply chain due to COVID-19.

A not so radical proposition

 In Bangladesh, the immediate focus of labour activism has been on holding accountable individual factory owners such as Sohel Rana, the BGMEA, and the government for their actions and inactions.  While this has been urgent and necessary, one unintended consequence has been to erase brands and their intermediaries from the analysis.  In the US, where I live and work, attention is almost exclusively on the responsibility of retailers and consumers, with a highly individualised approach to correcting problems ‘elsewhere’. A truly transformative labour rights agendas must hold all links in the chain accountable simultaneously, keeping in mind the uneven distribution of power along the way.

Much of this will not be new to those familiar with Bangladesh’s garment industry.  Indeed, there is no dearth of empirical evidence about the operations of global garment supply chains and their imbrications in the local. The question is not of adequate evidence but of what becomes legible as exploitation or a rights violation in the current discursive environment and what is set aside as business as usual or “the market at work.” Why, for instance, is it not considered scandalous for brands to unilaterally lower prices paid to Bangladeshi suppliers post-Rana Plaza? How and why is it legal for brands to renege on their contracts during the pandemic?

Surely the real scandal is a model of ‘development’ that relies on legalised corporate rapacity, and which, after four decades of ‘growth’ and prosperity still does not leave a cushion for those labouring in a key industry? It is time to move away from the dominant narrative of capital as nation building and critically reassess naturalised development imaginaries. It is worth asking, for instance, for whom the up to 100 new economic zones in the country herald development? And what happens when the next pandemic hits?

Dina M Siddiqi is an anthropologist who teaches in the School of Liberal Studies at New York University.  Her research and writing, grounded in the study of Bangladesh, joins feminist studies, development studies and the anthropology of Islam.

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