No one who works 10 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week for 18 cents to 26 cents an hour producing clothing for Americans deserves to die in a preventable workplace fire or building collapse. Yet that is what happens all too often in Bangladesh.
The number of garment workers reported dead in an April 24 building collapse in Bangladesh has risen to more than 400, with hundreds still unaccounted for. This comes only five months after a fire at the Tazreen factory that killed 112 workers. Death and injury from fires and building collapse are not uncommon.
Americans are implicated. Major U.S. clothing brands and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Gap (including Banana Republic and Old Navy), H&M, J.C. Penney, Sears, Phillips-Van Heusen (owner of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Van Heusen, Izod, Arrow, Bass and Eagle brands), Target and more sell clothing to Americans that is made in Bangladesh.
In fact, 98 percent of the clothing we buy in the United States comes from abroad. Bangladesh, with more than 4,500 garment factories, is the third-largest exporter of clothing to the United States, behind China and Vietnam.
Just as Americans took lasting action after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, we should take action today as workers producing clothing for us from afar suffer similar unsafe factory conditions.
A century ago, managers at the Triangle factory had locked doors to stairwells and exits supposedly to prevent workers from stealing or taking breaks. When fire broke out, 146 young workers died after being burned or jumping from ninth- and 10th-floor windows. In the aftermath of the fire, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union became a powerful force for better working conditions. The state legislature created a Factory Investigating Commission and took its recommendations to pass laws on fire safety, work hours and sanitary conditions that became a model for the country.
So what can we do about factory conditions in Bangladesh, 8,000 miles from California?
The first thing is what not to do. Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, wrote in the New York Times that boycotting U.S. retailers and brands or urging them to pull out of Bangladesh would "only further impoverish those who most need to put food on their tables." The Times reported Thursday that Disney has decided to cut and run, instead of fighting to improve conditions.
Abed recommends instead that U.S. buyers use their influence to help workers organize, "so they can engage in collective bargaining and hold their employers responsible for basic standards of pay and safety." He also urges U.S. retailers and brands to "finance better safety standards" not just to "squeeze factory owners on price."
Most important is getting U.S. retailers and brands to sign a labor-industry agreement with teeth, according to Garrett Brown, a compliance officer with Cal-OSHA who in 1993 started the Berkeley-based volunteer group Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, which offers technical assistance to factories in the developing world. Current voluntary corporate social responsibility codes and monitoring, Brown says, "have been a spectacular failure at improving working conditions" in the past 20 years more public relations than reality.
The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement is the vehicle for real change. It would create a two-year program with an independent chief inspector, safety audits, public reports, repairs and renovations, in-factory training, health and safety committees and a mechanism for workers to report health and safety risks. It would be financed by retailers and brands in proportion to the annual volume of their production in Bangladesh.
Brown believes this binding agreement is needed because the retailers and brands "are the only ones who have the money" to improve conditions. Further, companies don't want to be "the only good guy and be undersold." The agreement would provide a "level playing field."
So far, only two have signed on. Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH Corp.), one of the world's largest clothing companies, led the way last March, saying that ongoing factory disasters showed that "current efforts would not bring sustainable and systematic changes." It has committed $1 million to finance the program. German retailer Tchibo signed last September.
But other big players continue to balk including Wal-Mart, H&M, Gap, J.C. Penney and Target. Americans should write to the companies and tell them to sign on.
Young people also can act. Charles Kernaghan, director of the Pittsburgh-based Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, points to students at Dundee-Crown High School in Chicago who did a little research in 2010 and found that Sears was selling shirts made in Bangladesh for $38. Shipping documents showed total production costs were $5.33 fabric, thread, buttons, direct and indirect labor, and shipping. Workers, they found, were paid from 11 cents to 22 cents an hour and made a shirt every 26 minutes. The students met with Sears executives and urged them to support the workers' demand for a 35-cent-an-hour minimum wage.
Campus-based United Students Against Sweatshops works to make sure that brands selling clothing on campus disclose the locations of factories and abide by independent monitoring.
With economic globalization, we who benefit from clothing produced by Bangladeshi workers should be promoting ways to lift all boats, as we did after the 1911 Triangle fire not a race to the bottom.
What you can do
When you buy clothing that says Made in Bangladesh, write a letter to the company CEO saying that you support efforts to improve working conditions for workers in Bangladeshs garment industry. Urge the company to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, as Phillips-Van Heusen and Tchibo have done.
See the text of the agreement of the Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Forum.
Mr. Mike Duke
President & CEO, Wal-Mart
702 SW 8th Street
Bentonville, AR 72716
Mr. Edward Lampert
President & CEO, Sears Holdings Corp.
3333 Beverly Road
Hoffman Estates IL 60179
Mr. Karl-Johan Persson
CEO, H & M (Hennes & Mauritz)
215 Park Ave. South, 15th Floor
New York NY 10003
Mr. Myron Ullman
CEO, JC Penney
6501 Legacy Dr
Plano TX 75024-3612
Mr. Glenn Murphy
CEO, Gap Inc.
2 Folsom St
San Francisco CA 94105
Mr. Emanuel Chirico
CEO, Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH Corp.)
200 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
CEO, Target Corporation
1000 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis MN 55403