By Ian Bremmer
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In Bangladesh, the search for survivors has become an effort to recover the dead. After a garment factory building collapsed in the Dhaka suburb of Savar last week, residents and rescue workers spent days digging through the rubble hoping to save the lives of people caught in yet another Bangladeshi industrial accident. At least 390 people are thought to have died.
This type of accident is all too common in Bangladesh. In November, more than 100 people died in a garment factory fire when workers could not easily escape the building. In 2006, 84 people were killed in a blaze because fire exits were locked.
This is what happens when a $20 billion industry accounts for 3.2 million jobs and 80 percent of a country's exports. It needs the industry too much, especially when those jobs have helped push female participation in the workplace from 26.1 percent in 2002-03 to a still-insufficient 36 percent in 2010.
The globalized economy demands that Bangladesh provide cheap goods, and cheap goods are easier to manufacture when there aren't strict rules to follow — or at least when they're not enforced.
It also helps when those rules are set by the same people who own the factory buildings. A sector that is too big to fail can repel government-induced regulation. Mohammed Sohel Rana, who owned the building that collapsed, was escorted to court yesterday in body armor and a helmet. But the factory wasn't his only project — he was also a local leader of the ruling party's youth wing. This is partly why it's so hard for developing countries to bite the hand that feeds. It would require the powerful to bite themselves.
A groundswell of protest might change things, and we're seeing the beginnings of that. Bangladeshis have burned factories to the ground to make clear that the garment industry is not as invincible as it seems. Citizens want action, and with an election coming later this year, they'll have the government's attention.
Sensing this, Bangladeshi officials, after reportedly refusing rescue help from Britain, have promised to take action to prevent accidents like this from happening again. Rana built his factory on swampland and then kept the building open after long cracks were discovered in its pillars. In a country as reliant on one industry as Bangladesh, regulations are just the first step - success depends on consistent enforcement.
What does this mean for Western corporations? In a situation like this, a company's imperative is to get ahead of government, to make rather than simply accept new standards. But until government acts, don't expect much from the private sector.
Bangladesh isn't the kind of country that will shame a company into compliance by tarring its reputation — it's too small, and media coverage of its labor practices pales in comparison to China's. Until pressure is added from outside Bangladesh, action inside the country won't force change in the private sector.
We've seen mass protest against labor practices in the past, most famously when sweatshops became a cause célèbre in the 1990s. It was mounting progress and pressure that changed work conditions then, thanks to non-governmental organizations, celebrities and major American brands transforming consumer behavior in the United States. But Bangladesh doesn't have its own Kathie Lee. Aside from disasters like this, the country rarely makes headlines in the West, despite a population bigger than that of Germany and France combined.
When there's money to be lost, it's harder to build momentum for change. This was a horrific disaster — and a preventable one. Let's hope its human cost convinces Bangladesh's government and its private sector that it can no longer afford not to act.
(Ian Bremmer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)
(This column is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer. Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm. Bremmer created Wall Street's first global political risk index, and has authored several books, including the national bestseller, The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?, which details the new global phenomenon of state capitalism and its geopolitical implications. He has a PhD in political science from Stanford University (1994), and was the youngest-ever national fellow at the Hoover Institution.)