Tragedy in a garment factory has brought new urgency to resolving long-standing failings in a sector crucial to Bangladesh’s economy

The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 people died, was entirely foreseeable.

Safety concerns about Bangladesh’s factories have been raised in the past: most recently in December 2012, when a fire at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory, also in Dhaka, killed 112 workers.

Prior to the Rana Plaza collapse, trade union activists had already noted more than 1,000 deaths over the past decade in many accidents in this highly profitable and booming sector. It employs nearly five million Bangladeshis, nearly 85% of them women, and yields some 80% of the nation’s export revenues.

Not only has the industry earned foreign exchange for the country, but by employing women it has empowered them in a conservative society, which has had an enormously positive effect on gender dynamics in the country.

And yet, for a sector that’s so critical to Bangladesh’s economy, it remains poorly supervised by managers, under-administered by the government, inadequately audited, and rarely inspected properly by government officials. As a result, the garment factories operate with the sort of disregard for safety that was last seen in London in Dickensian times.

Multinational brands know they cannot monitor every factory. Local manufacturers know how to deceive inspectors and auditors....

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