A man in Savar, Bangladesh, holds up an identity card of a missing relative… (A.M. Ahad /Associated Press )
NEW DELHI — The disaster caused shocking loss of life among young, mostly female garment workers, awoke the conscience of a nation, spotlighted dismal working conditions and spurred loud calls for construction and labor reform.
So far, that description could apply equally to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh three weeks ago and to the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911.
The Triangle fire would prove a turning point in safeguarding American workers after 146 mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrants died, including many who jumped to their deaths because they were trapped behind locked doors.
It is too soon to say whether Rana Plaza — the world's worst apparel industry disaster, with 1,127 deaths — will be a similar catalyst for change.
Academics, labor rights experts, activists and manufacturers say the collapse of the massive Rana Plaza, which housed five factories on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital, has the potential to bring significant changes to labor practices in Bangladesh. But the betting is against it becoming a real turning point for global labor practices.
"It seems to have had some impact on consumers who are more keen to find out where their polo shirt is produced," said Nicola Countouris, co-director of University College London's Labor Rights Institute. "But it hasn't caught the collective imagination of Western consumers in ways that could really bring change."
One problem, experts said, is the geographical and psychological distance most Western shoppers feel toward Bangladesh, making it easier for them to forget about the shocking loss of life by the next news cycle.
Few people have visited the impoverished country or have much direct connection with it, and most of the news about Bangladesh that's carried overseas tends to be about natural and man-made disasters and political infighting.
Then there's the bargain-hunter mentality of many consumers, which makes them less likely to seek out more expensive "ethical clothing" made under better conditions.
Probably the most significant change since the Bangladesh collapse, activists and academics said, involves the nation's pledge to allow the formation of trade unions without approval from management. Though the change must also be approved by Parliament, if enacted it could empower groups with a vested interest in safety and better working conditions.
"That's going to be a very good watchdog," said M. Alimullah Miyan, a disaster-management expert and vice chancellor of Dhaka's International University of Business Agriculture and Technology.
Also, as of Wednesday, 24 global businesses had pledged to sign an accord on monitoring building standards and construction at Bangladeshi factories. They include PVH Corp., owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands; Italy's Benetton; and Britain's Marks & Spencer. The companies say they'll fund programs over five years to encourage construction upgrades, review building regulations and build a worker-complaint process.
Still, it's unclear how much money they'll provide, which projects they'll fund and whether the programs are sustainable.
"They can say they're giving money, but where is it?" said Mohammad Atiqul Islam, who runs a factory and leads the 3,000-member Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Assn. "What is the road map? It's good for the industry, and we appreciate it, but we need commitment."
Major U.S. companies, including Wal-Mart, Sears, Target and Gap, have opted out of the accord, saying they can inspect and police their systems better on their own. Critics say that could undercut implementation.
Still others, such as Disney, have vowed to pull out of Bangladesh completely as a way to spur better health and safety standards and, presumably, insulate themselves from bad publicity.
Those favoring reform, however, argue that staying in Bangladesh is a better path.
"If you want to help us to develop, it's not good to boycott," said Taslima Akhter, a Dhaka-based workers rights activist. "It's more important to take responsibility for helping improve the wages and conditions."
Worried that Western buyers will go elsewhere and weaken a $20-billion industry that accounts for 80% of Bangladesh's exports, the government has vowed to train workers, add inspectors, mandate group insurance and close unsafe factories.
Some activists are skeptical that those moves will be fully implemented, however, citing a string of broken safety and labor rights pledges by the government. According to Bangladesh's Daily Star newspaper, the country has employed just 51 inspectors to oversee 200,000 factories, including 5,000 making garments.