The Nobel laureate and social activist Muhammad Yunus has asked western consumers and businesses to help reform Bangladesh’s booming but unregulated garment industry after the deaths of more than 1,000 people last month in the collapse of a factory in the capital, Dhaka.
Writing in the Guardian in his first major intervention since the disaster, Yunus, who founded the pioneering Grameen bank in Bangladesh 30 years ago and won a joint Nobel prize in 2006, says urgent action is needed to improve the conditions of the estimated 4 million workers in the industry and save lives.
“Today the souls of those who lost their lives … are watching what we are doing and listening to what we say. The last breath of those souls surrounds us,” the 72-year-old economist writes.
Yunus says “there is no sense” in foreign firms “leaving a country which has benefited a great deal from their business” but calls on foreign clothes companies operating in Bangladesh to jointly fix a minimum wage for workers in the industry.
“This might be something like 50 cents per hour, twice the level typically found in Bangladesh. Such a minimum wage would be an integral part of complete reform of the industry, which would in turn help prevent tragedies like that [last month],” Yunus, who was born in the port city of Chittagong, adds.
Rescuers on Sunday continued to search through the ruins of the eight-storey Rana Plaza, in the suburb of Savar, for survivors but found only bodies. The official death toll stands at more than 1,120 and is expected to rise. A seamstress rescued on Friday after 16 days in the rubble continues to recover in hospital, doctors say.
Several western firms, including UK high street retailer Primark, have said that factories in the complex supplied them. The building had been illegally constructed, and developed massive cracks in the days before its collapse. Workers, who are paid less than £25 a month as is standard in the garments industry in Bangladesh, were forced to continue work despite safety fears. The building’s owner has been arrested.
The tragedy, one of the world’s worst ever industrial accidents, has prompted widespread criticism of international firms working with local garment producers in one of Asia’s poorest countries.
Yunus wants a 50-cent supplement on the price of clothes made in Bangladesh, to be paid into a garment workers’ welfare trust.
“Would a consumer in a shopping mall feel upset if they were asked to pay $35.50 instead of $35 for the item of clothing? My answer is: no, they’ll not even notice. If we could create a … welfare trust in Bangladesh with that additional $0.50, then we could resolve most of the problems workers face – their physical safety, social safety, work environment, pensions, healthcare, housing, their children’s health, education, childcare, retirement, old age and travel,” Yunus writes.
To ensure that businesses did not leave Bangladesh in search of cheaper labour, investments to increase local workers’ productivity were needed, Yunus argues. The 50 cents surcharge “could be a marketing tool”.
“We would put a special tag on each piece of clothing. The tag would say: “From the happy workers of Bangladesh, with pleasure. Workers’ well-being guaranteed,” said Yunus, who stood down as managing director of the bank in 2011, ending a protracted legal wrangle with the Bangladeshi government over its control.
Yunus has been an outspoken critic of successive governments in Bangladesh.
“The tragedy at the garment factory in Savar is a symbol of our failure as a nation,” Yunus writes. “The crack in Rana Plaza that caused the collapse of the building has shown us that if we don’t face up to the cracks in our own systems, we as a nation will get lost in the debris.”
Jason Burke in New Dehli, for the guardian.