Jean Lambert visits the ruins of the factory and talks to women garment workers
A dawn-to-dusk day saw scheduled site visits, accompanying teams of inspectors, touring factories and speaking on a panel about gender empowerment at the apparel summit, and visiting the Rana Plaza site.
It isn’t possible to visit the scene of such catastrophic loss of life and not feel outrage.
It has been claimed that the top floors of the building had been constructed without a permit. I reflect on this looking at the heaped rubble, some partly concealed by fetid, pea-soup moss pools.
I hope that the outcome of visits such as these and progressive, positive pressure from organisations inside and outside the country, along with the attention of campaigners means that if anything is ever again built on this site it will be safe and compliant with legislation.
I then joined an inspection on a site visit of some factories owned by a Dhaka-based company called Vertex.
The purpose is to carry out vigorous checks and thorough inspections to ensure that recommendations that had been agreed on previous visits have in fact been implemented. The focus today was to check compliance on two issues — fire safety and electrics.
And so we completed an extensive tour of the factory with a team of Accord inspectors — these are independent, professionally qualified experts in factory safety who work with the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety is a legally binding agreement, signed by over 190 apparel corporations from 20 countries in Europe and elsewhere, two global trade unions and many Bangladeshi unions.
These inspections are not unannounced as they work with manufacturers — only government officers have the power to do unannounced visits.
I also can’t help but reflect on the Eurosceptics — and Europhobics — who decry EU legislation in all its forms, yet it is often this attention to basic safety principles, and getting these enshrined in law, that means people can go to work in safety.
I was interested to see how the inspectors work, and in addition we had informative discussions with factory owners, but of course it was the workers I wanted to speak to.
I was able to talk informally with some assembly line workers. There’s no doubt that the long hours and often repetitive labour provide family-supporting work for many women.
They told me that they work from 8am to 5.30pm, have an hour’s lunch break and are paid for overtime at an agreed rate.
The garment industry is important in Bangladesh — it forms 80 per cent of its exports, exports that end up in our high-street stores.
This is not a problem for the other side of the world that we can conveniently ignore. I have authored a number of resolutions about garment factories in the European Parliament and have organised many events there on this important subject.
This is, rightly, an issue of concern both in Europe and Britain, and I think we should really make a big call on European companies sourcing their goods here in Bangladesh or elsewhere — anywhere — to assume more responsibility over supply chain ethics.
Short-term, we need to keep insisting that European companies pay into the Rana Plaza Donor Trust Fund. Many victims are still without compensation nearly two years after the disaster.
Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London, is in Bangladesh this week as chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with South Asia.