This haunting image from the Bangladesh garment factory collapse in Dhaka captures the essence of this tragedy better than any words can describe. At last count, 823 bodies have been pulled from the rubble. More than 2,500 people escaped. It is unknown how many more may lay buried after the factory collapsed two weeks ago. Just yesterday another clothing factory in the region caught fire, killing seven people. In November of last year, 112 people died in a deadly factory fire in the same area. The workers, trapped in a locked building, were roasted alive. Survivors of the fire claimed that doors were locked and that they were ordered to return to work after fire alarms went off.
Police say that the factory owners were ordered to evacuate the Dhaka building a day before its collapse. Owners ignored the order. Mere hours before the collapse, The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association also asked that the factory be shut down.
The environment of lax regulation and close relationships between business owners and government has resulted in extremely unsafe working conditions and few worker protections (sound familiar?). International attention has led Bangladesh to promise labor reforms to prevent another tragedy.
Not so long ago, American workers faced similar working conditions. In 1906 Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, highlighting the plight of workers in the meatpacking industry. On March 25, 1911, fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York claimed the lives of 146 women laborers, some as young as fourteen, who had been locked into the building to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. Still, millions of undocumented workers in this country deal with long hours for substandard pay in unsafe conditions.
In 2010, California passed the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 requiring “every retail seller and manufacturer doing business in [California] and having annual worldwide gross receipts that exceed one hundred million dollars ($100,000,000) [to] disclose its efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from its direct supply chain for tangible goods offered for sale.” Perhaps similar national legislation would be effective, but I believe businesses should take the initiative to institute fair-trade policies.
There is an advantage for retailers to have a transparent supply chain. Many businesses have profited by acting ethically. Patagonia is one company that has made transparency and social responsibility an important part of its business model. The merchandise is certainly very pricey for the average American, but the example is one that major retailers would do well to imitate. Greater demand for sustainably made fair trade merchandise will serve to lower costs. Wal-Mart and other mega-retailers would make a huge difference in the world if they took heed of this and other successful ethical companies.
Bangladesh is the third largest supplier of apparel to western countries, behind China and Vietnam. Many major retailers, such as H&M, Wal-Mart and JC Penney, sell merchandise made in Bangladesh. After the building collapse, western consumers voiced outrage about working conditions in Bangladesh. Typical workers receive between .30-.40 and hour and often work in poorly ventilated areas with few, if any, windows, fire escapes, or emergency exits. The problem is complex, because there are few job opportunities for the poor, in particular for women. Disney has decided to remove Bangladesh from its list of approved trade countries.
Boycotting goods made in Bangladesh is one option, but a better solution would be actual reform. Bangladesh would be economically crippled without the apparel industry, with 80 percent of exports coming from the garment industry. Retailers monitoring each step of the supply chain and demanding safe working conditions and adequate pay for workers would make it more profitable for factories to implement those changes rather than lose a valuable client.
Since the building collapse Bangladesh has shut down 18 garment factories pending inspections to review the safety of each facility. In the meantime, millions of workers, mostly women, in Bangladesh are uncertain for their futures. As consumers, we have a powerful voice to change for the better the plight of the working poor who provide clothing for our relatively privileged backs.