This year's World Day for Safety and Health at Work on April 28 was unusually stormy as the world came to grips with yet another Asian workplace disaster. The latest in Savar Bangladesh killed at least 430 garment workers (final figures not yet in) and injured or maimed hundreds of others as the building they worked in collapsed. Mere months separated the current tragedy from two other events in the Fall of 2012. Both were garment manufacturing factory fires, one occurred in Dhaka and the other in neighbouring Pakistan. Combined, the two disasters claimed the lives of more than 500 workers.
Consumers have been troubled by the events, concerned about their complicity in the disasters by idly watching by. And that's because they expect companies to be fully engaged in their supply chains and the production process, including the human rights of workers and workplace safety. They expect retailers to be functioning as a team with their design, purchasing and CSR departments working together as one in an integrated manner.
It's all too easy to be pre-occupied with supply chain management because everyone wants to liberate themselves of complicity. But one has to ask why these tragic events occur at all. Competition for business in the garment manufacturing sector is fierce and with that there is a risk of corners being cut and behaviors becoming reckless. But these events are symptomatic of a deeply dysfunctional system of governance. If the tragedy in Bangladesh is a story about the failure of corporate social responsibility, it is also a story of poor governance. Focussing efforts only on optimizing the supply chain would be short-sighted. As symptoms, these tragic events need to be dismantled so that underlying causes can be examined and appropriate measures adopted to make necessary corrections. When was the last time you watched someone succeed in making the symptoms of a health or social problem disappear without exploring underlying causes and addressing them?
Walmart recently stepped forward with $1.6 million to support the Institute for Sustainable Communities to establish an Environmental Health and Safety Academy in Dhaka to train workers on fire safety. And while this is an important contribution, its scope is limited. Bangladesh requires a deeper and more concerted response.
The symptoms of dysfunction are not unique to Bangladesh. Nor are they unique to the garment manufacturing sector. Other countries and other industrial sectors experience similar consequences of poorly run states where human rights are inadequately protected, or enabled. It is a government's obligation to ensure these rights are protected through policy, legislation, regulation and the allocation of adequate resources for their fulfillment.
The failure of a government to fulfill its obligations can be attributed to the lack of political will to make decisions on the basis of what's good for its people. There is ample evidence to illustrate the intergenerational return on investment to education, yet too few governments allocate sufficient resources to education. It's as if they are unconvinced of the value of education. Mistaken, they don't see that with adequate investment, upon completion, there could be a talent pool from which a vibrant economy can be built.
Bangladesh does well by ensuring that 90% of its children are enrolled in primary school, but of those enrolled, only 50% complete all 5 grades. Half this many go on to secondary school. As a consequence, only three quarters of the 17 to 25 age group in Bangladesh are literate, declining to about 55% for older adults.
Safety education in Bangladesh has suffered from a similar lack of investment. In a safety informed culture, the engineers would have designed the building that collapsed to meet code standards and to ensure that it was properly outfitted. The construction company would have built the structure with materials to meet the building's demands without being tempted to use sub-standard materials. And the building inspector would have been more interested in upholding the building code and less in corruption. An exercise in good judgement as an extension of a cultural safety norm would not have forced the garment workers in Savar to work that fateful day.
Ninety per cent of the 5.8 million deaths a year that result from injuries occur in low and middle-income countries. Two-thirds of the deaths are caused by safety related accidents and represent 32% more the number of fatalities caused by malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined. This is why an investment in safety can no longer be ignored. The millions of deaths that result from injuries represent only a small fraction of the tens of millions who survive their injuries every year. The impact of death and injury on the family members left behind can exacerbate existing poverty or drive families into it.
Safety related injuries and deaths are entirely preventable! Injuries affect all age groups, but have a particular impact on young people. They cause 30% of deaths in 1-3 year olds and 50% to 60% among 5-17 year olds. Drowning is the leading cause of injury death among children under 5 in the US and Asia, although the rate of death is 30 times higher in Asia. The drowning deaths in Asia are not swimming pool deaths, but drowning deaths from falls into open wells, rice paddies and other open water. In flood-prone Bangladesh for example, drowning is the single leading cause of death among children aged 1-17. More children die from drowning in Bangladesh than from pneumonia and diarrhoea! These statistics have prompted some to ask why invest so much in child survival efforts if the investment there is going to be lost to preventable tragedy.
Ending the death and injury toll in Bangladesh requires a long term, culturally sensitive, holistic, multi-sectoral, integrated and collaborative response. Public-private partnerships should represent an important feature of this strategy. For a sustainable outcome to be reached, investments will need to be made in legislation, environment and product design as well as safety education. And as a prerequisite, the country needs to make a commitment to creating a culture of safety. Proceeding without this commitment and time-bound measureable goals is a stop gap measure at best.
I expect that some companies may choose to leave Bangladesh altogether because of the impression that there is simply too much to fix. Leaving would be a shame because of the importance to Bangladesh's economic growth and the women affected by such a decision who would be jobless or lost to more menial jobs. The ability of the private sector to influence change in governance and legislation in the country is not overstated.