How Many More Garment Workers Have To Die Before Things Really Change?

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Adam Peck

Garment sector workers were wary about going into the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 24, 2013 after a huge cracks became visible in the building. But the factory’s owner told workers they would be docked pay if they didn’t go inside and work, so many did. Later that day, the building collapsed, killing 1,129 people.

Bangladesh is just one country that exports garments to consumers in developed countries. Cambodia, China, El Salvador, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Vietnam are all major exporters. And these other countries have experienced their own disasters, if not on the extreme scale of what happened at Rana Plaza. Just a few months after that disaster, two were killed and seven injured in a shoe factory collapse in Cambodia. In 2012, a fire at a garment factory in Pakistan killed nearly 300 people. China has seen two deadly factory fires this year: one at a shoe factory in January that killed 16 people, and another at an underwear factory in March that killed 11 and injured 15.

But it took more than 1,000 people to die before any real change came to Bangladesh’s garment industry. “It did take a disaster with the scope of Rana Plaza to really force brands to deal with these issues in their supply chain because of the risk it created for their public image,” Theresa Haas, communications director at the Workers Rights Consortium, told ThinkProgress. A 2005 factory collapse that killed 64 in Bangladesh “generated many promises from the brands, but failed to bring about any real change,” Haas noted. “We’ve known about safety problems in the Bangladesh industry for years.”

Given the potential for terrible public relations, on the other hand, Rana Plaza has actually produced tangible action. More than 150 companies, including many European retailers like H&M and Carrefour, have signed the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety that pledges widespread inspections and resources for upgrading safety conditions. Meanwhile, 26 American and Canadian retailers, among them Walmart and Gap, are pursuing their own less binding plan.

The current focus on Bangladesh stems not just from the Rana Plaza disaster, but also from the uniquely dangerous conditions in the country’s clothing factories, according to Haas. “The garment industry there is particularly unique and dangerous with respect to fire and building safety issues,” she said. Bangladeshi garment workers are the lowest paid in the world, so retailers moved in quickly to take advantage of the low labor costs, causing the industry to grow incredibly fast. That meant factories sprang up in any available buildings, “many and most of which were not built safely or for the purpose of housing commercial factories,” she said. The buildings are usually high rises, reaching as high as 16 or 17 stories, and workers put in very long hours that strain the electrical systems.

All of these factors make conditions particularly prone to collapses. Rana Plaza was may have been the deadliest, but it was not the first or the last. The Spectrum sweater factory collapse in 2005 killed 64 workers and more than 100 people were killed in a factory fire in November of 2012. Ten were killed in a fire late last year, well after Rana Plaza. In the wake of April’s tragedy, an engineering team found that three-fifths of the country’s garment factories are vulnerable to collapse.

But there are plenty of workers in other countries in need of better conditions. The steps being taken today in Bangladesh –- especially the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety — could spread to those other places once they take hold.

“Once the accord has been up and operational in Bangladesh for some time and the program is in place, we will certainly look to expand it to other countries,” Haas said. She said it could be easily replicated in these other countries, many of which have strong workers rights organizations that could participate and qualified people to assist in implementing it. The retailers have the ability to ensure factory inspections and the necessary renovations take place. “There’s really no reason why the accord or an accord-like structure couldn’t be put into place in other countries,” she said, although it does of course depend on retailers’ willingness to make commitments outside of Bangladesh.

But while the accord may do much to address safety conditions, Sabina Dewan, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argues that it is just one step in many that need to be taken in the garment industry. The accord “sets an interesting precedent for what companies should and could be doing,” she said. “But the issues go well beyond workers’ safety.” For example, workers in 15 of the top 21 countries that export garments to the United States make just a third of what would amount to a living wage. And in five of them, wages have actually declined in real terms over the last decade by an average of about 15 percent, even as workers’ productivity has risen. “The most effective way of addressing wage issues is through strong collective bargaining and through unions, and in some of these countries it’s still very difficult to unionize,” she said. Raising wages will require easing workers’ ability to organize as well as better enforcement of these countries’ existing labor laws. “If there’s any big lesson we learned from Bangladesh, it’s that it’s possible for companies to foot the bill for better worker safety, and we need to look at more than just worker safety,” she said.

Haas pointed out that the accord will help improve working conditions beyond safety by changing the financial picture. “It creates a binding obligation on brands and retailers to make it possible for their factories to afford the necessary renovations and repairs,” she said. Without that, factories have been under extreme pressure to produce at low prices with very quick turnarounds, “which makes it impossible for factories to meet supply chain demands while complying with the codes of conduct that brands supposedly want them to meet” on workers’ conditions. The accord eases that financial strain.

But while it may make improvements Bangladesh, “what that doesn’t really do is lead to any kind of permanent policy change and enforcement change,” Dewan argued. There are many avenues for that kind of change, from the international level to the national level to the local level. At the international level, she pointed to the G20 pressuring governments, and the United States Bureau of International Labor Affairs “is pushing very hard to get these issues on the G20 agenda,” she said. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has a Better Work program that, similarly to the Bangladesh accord, brokers deals between workers, retailers, and governments, but “the ILO is a big multilateral body that can have a much more tangible impact if it works with governments,” she said, and “it has a much bigger role to play.” She also said that USAID could start incorporating labor issues into its work and the U.S. could use its trade partnerships to call for strong labor protections.

At the national level, governments will “have to go beyond just ratifying ILO [labor] conventions and have better enforcement and actually change the way they think about these issues,” she said. That would require a shift from focusing on attracting retailers with cheap labor to pushing for good jobs and good pay as a way to boost consumer demand within their own borders. And it will also require raising minimum wages, instituting better protections for workers rights as well as protections against discrimination and for women’s rights, and easing unionization.

“We need to make sure we fight harder to make sure it doesn’t take a Rana Plaza in order to bring about tangible change,” Dewan said.