Clothed in Blood: Law, Morality & Responsibility within the Global Fashion Industry

An Interview with

Commercial lawyer, Bangladesh

On the last week of April as bitterly cold winds swept through Oxford Street, a factory building collapsed thousands of miles away in a distant part of the globe killing 1,100 workers. Factories like this in Savar, Bangladesh as well as thousands of others littered throughout South Asia manufacture the bulk of clothes sold on our high street stores. Bangladesh has some of the lowest wages in the world, its government is eager to lure Western companies and their jobs, and many labour groups want those big corporations to stay to improve conditions, not cut their losses and run. In this interview Barrister Alam talks candidly about the factory collapse as well as shedding light on the legal process in his country.

TheLawMap: Does 'the legal process as a means to resolving conflict' has exactly the same meaning everywhere in the world?

The legal process may be different or have developed differently from country to county, perhaps, from a civil law country to a common law country but certainly, the process is there for resolving conflicts and it has the same meaning everywhere in the world.

TheLawMap: In light of the recent tragedy at Savar where the garment factory building collapse has resulted in over 600 deaths and the news that a number of factories have been closed down over health and safety concerns, are the authorities taking the necessary steps to ensure that factory premises are safe?

Yes, the concerned authorities are taking necessary steps to ensure that factory premises are safe. But one must bear in mind that closing down the factories for health and safety reasons is not the permanent solution to overcoming such devastating tragedies because ultimately, this would lead to unemployment thus reducing overall economic growth. I think we have to find a way to ensure that such incidents do not take place in future, which could only be achieved through joint initiatives taken by the government institutions, factory owners, foreign buyers, trade unions and the concern groups such as NGOs working on worker's rights, environment, and the civil society. These bodies would have to combine their efforts where such cooperation would produce more meaningful results, but at the same time, they also need to work independently within their own sphere by outlining immediate short term and long term plans, and execute the plans with sincerity keeping in mind overall accountability, transparency and social responsibility. 

TheLawMap: A recent New York Times article, 'Clothed in Misery' compared this disaster to textile manufacturing disasters elsewhere stating, 'manufacturing change flows quickly to stay ahead of legislative change. Like water, industrial management seeks a route of least resistance'. What if any, further measures would you like to see in place to prevent such accidents in Bangladesh?

Well, some legislative changes are very much necessary as time demands for it. But, I personally believe that, perhaps more important than legislative changes what we need is, the stakeholders in this sector have to truly believe that they are facing a serious problem. If they don’t show their honest willingness to resolve the issue they will destroy the whole industry. So once they realise the problem the solution would also be found by them. It is evident that legislative changes would create obligation to comply with certain standards but to maintain this standard we need joint initiatives and work by all the stakeholders.

TheLawMap: What measures would you like to see on the part of the fashion houses and retail giants in the West to improve working conditions in factories like those in Savar?

The fashion houses and retail giants who are doing business here in Bangladesh have to realise that while the garment workers are physically working in Bangladesh, they are in fact contributing their labour for the overall success of fashion houses and retail giant’s highly profitable businesses in the west. These workers are stakeholders and should be thought of as such. A profitable fashion business, to a large extent depends on the availability of cheap labour, so mere physical severance should not be a ground to look away from the well-beings of these workers; rather these fashion houses and retail giants need to consider these workers to be part of a global family, and an essential part of their overall workforce. The sooner they realise this, the sooner they would be able to implement measures to improve working conditions in factories like those in Savar.

TheLawMap: Corporate social responsibility has been somewhat used to enhance the image of multinational corporations in recent years. Shortly before the incident at Savar, the Walt Disney Corporation had pulled out of merchandise manufacturing from several countries including Bangladesh citing worker's safety issues. How much of a moral responsibility should international corporations commissioning such work bear towards the garment worker?

As we know, corporate social responsibility is a process with the aim to embrace responsibility for the company’s actions and encourage a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders, and all other members of the public sphere who may also be considered as stakeholders. So I would say if Walt Disney Corporation considers all the garment workers working in different underdeveloped countries as global family members of their business then pulling out of merchandise manufacturing from these countries citing worker safety issues would indeed cause overall negative impact not only on the above mentioned actors but also on the company’s long term business strategies. I believe that instead of pulling out, if  they could share a little portion of their profit and develop a self regulating mechanism, whereby they could monitor active compliance within the spirit of law, ethical standards and international norms then, to quite a large extent, they will meet their moral responsibility.

TheLawMap: Would you say that, in some way the fashion-conscious consumer in the West is morally responsible for the poor working conditions and unsafe working practices in factories in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and wherever else the garment industry is so important? What could be a ethically driven action in the part of the Western consumers to improve the lives of the workers?

I will not say that the fashion conscious consumer in the west is morally responsible for the poor working conditions and unsafe working practices in factories in Bangladesh because first of all, the majority of them are not aware of the situation here and in most of the cases, they have no idea about how much profit a multinational company is making by selling a piece of cloth to them. Secondly, if they are ready to pay £15 for an item of clothing I don’t think they will be altogether unwilling to add a few extra pennies, which could be used for the well being of the garment workers. So ultimately, we need to inform the fashion conscious consumer about the situation at manufacturing level.

TheLawMap: Garment workers in Bangladesh are predominantly women. In your opinion, what role has the garment industry played in emancipating women from their traditional role in society? 

Four million poor and marginally literate women are actively involved in the garment factories here in Bangladesh and majority of them are the sole bread winner of their respective families. The more we involve women in economic activities such as working within the garment industry or train them to take on even more technically demanding roles, they will not only gain economic freedom but such involvement would lead to achieving a higher standard of living, improved health, education for themselves and their children, and an eventual eradication of poverty.

TheLawMap: As a UK trained Barrister who is now practicing in Bangladesh, in your experience, what is the most noticeable difference in the day to day legal practice between the two countries?

The most noticeable differences would be corruption at lower judiciary where a culture of bribery prevails among the lower level employees, an inefficient court management system, unskilled employees, lack of digitization and courts over loaded with cases. 

TheLawMap: Is the perception of the lawyer any different between UK & Bangladesh? Is there perhaps a greater reverence towards the profession in Bangladesh and perhaps within the developing world in general to how lawyers are perceived here in UK?

In my opinion, the legal profession used to be honourable, noble and well respected in Bangladesh; but due to social, political and economic unrest, and its ill functioning, a dark shadow has fallen over the legal fraternity in the last 20 years. As a result, people may have started to look at the profession with a tinge of negativity. But the good news is, positive changes are taking place within the legal fraternity to bring back the lost pride.
TheLawMap: What inspired you to become a lawyer?

Being a lawyer is challenging. I love the independence and it opened up opportunities for me to work with different segments of society, which may not have been possible had I chosen a different profession.

TheLawMap: If you had one wish to change something within the legal profession, what would it be?

With special reference to the jurisdiction I operate in, I would like to eradicate all notions of corruption within the profession.

With special thanks to Barrister A S M Monirul Alam for his valuable time.
Barrister A S M Monirul Alam is a practising commercial and corporate lawyer in Bangladesh. He received his extensive legal education in UK.
He maintains an active social media presence via Facebook & LinkedIn, frequently commenting on legal and political issues close to his heart.