As Bangladesh Death Toll Exceeds 300, Major U.S. Retailers Refuse To Implement Safety Standards

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"As Bangladesh Death Toll Exceeds 300, Major U.S. Retailers Refuse To Implement Safety Standards"

Photo: Associated Press

The Bangladeshi garment factory whose collapse has cost 300 lives and counting never gained approval from the local development authority. In the days leading up to the collapse, with the building exhibiting deep cracks, police ordered owners to evacuate the building and workers fled to the streets. But the building’s owner told reporters the cracks were “nothing serious” and stood outside the building with a megaphone, reportedly warning workers they would be docked pay if they didn’t return to work.

The fire is one of a spate of incidents at Bangladeshi garment factories in recent months that have led to deaths and injuries. But even after a fire in November that killed 112 workers, clothing brands and retailers that include Wal-Mart, Gap, and H&M refused to implement a new union-proposed safety plan. The Associated Press reports:

The plan would ditch government inspections, which are infrequent and easily subverted by corruption, and establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions. The inspections would be funded by contributions from the companies of up to $500,000 per year.

The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers — including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M — but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly.

At the time, Wal-Mart’s representative told the meeting it was “not financially feasible … to make such investments,” according to minutes of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

After last year’s Tazreen blaze, Bangladeshi union president Amin said he and international labor activists renewed a push for the independent inspectorate plan, but none of the factories or big brands would agree.

This week, none of the large clothing brands or retailers would comment about the proposal.

Over the past several years, corporations have touted their in-house social responsibility programs as an alternative to binding agreements on working conditions, but these self-monitoring programs implement measures that are neither sufficient to fill huge regulatory gaps in an industry with 3 million workers, nor transparent enough to ensure compliance.

Retailers reap extraordinary savings from siting their garment factories in countries like Bangladesh, with miniscule wages and little compliance expense, casting doubt on their claims that stepped up oversight is not “financially feasible.” Some 100 years ago, a New York garment factory fire in which some 150 young women and teens jumped to their deaths sparked labor reform in the United States. But mega-corporations continue to skirt those reforms by simply moving to new and less developed countries without regulations, which poses particular hazards in the labor-intensive textile industry. In part, these clothiers are responding to U.S. demand for cheap clothing in a culture built on “fast fashion.” At the turn of the century, the average affordable clothing item cost around $8, or $380 adjusted for inflation, and by 1929, most women still only owned nine work outfits. Today, most Americans expect to own much more for much less.

Update

Bangladeshi authorities arrested eight people, including two factory owners, in response to the collapse. Thousands of workers have also taken to the streets to protest unsafe working conditions.

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