by Erin Riordan
Over 400 people died when a factory collapsed in Bangladesh last week, with over 1,000 injured and several hundred more still missing. This is the most deadly event in the history of the garment industry. We are responsible for these deaths, and we are accountable to the workers and their families in Bangladesh, and every other place in the world where goods we consume are produced. Our demand for cheap, fast fashion has created a demand for even cheaper labor, a demand that is responsible for abominably low wages, unsafe workplace conditions, and death in Bangladesh and many other countries around the world. We have a duty to change our behavior and call upon companies to take responsibility for their workers and their conditions, wherever in the world those workers may be located.
Bangladesh is the world’s biggest source of cheap, low-wage labor, and is the second-largest exporter of apparel. Workers there are paid just 18 cents an hour and often work very long hours. Workplaces violate many safety and health standards, and workers routinely face unsafe conditions, as they did in the now collapsed Rana Plaza factory. Workers who attempt to organize or form a union face aggressive, harsh intimidation. Just last year Aminul Islam, a union organizer in Bangladesh, was brutally murdered just weeks after winning an incredible international victory for workers. The conditions in Bangladeshi factories are unconscionable, and it is ever-growing demand for cheap products made with cheap labor that allows this system to continue, unchecked.
Bangladesh regulates its factories and buildings, however political corruption allows men like Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza factory, to violate building codes and ignore health and safety standards. Workers in the factory noticed large cracks forming in some of the lower floors the day before the collapse, and while the factory was initially evacuated and ordered closed, the owners of the building and four factories within it ordered their workers back to work the next day, under threat of losing their employment. A system in which workers risk life and limb simply by their presence at work each day, and where they are paid poverty wages for their long hours worked, is a broken system, and it needs to be reevaluated and redesigned. Considerations of justice and human dignity must play into how we conduct our business not just here in the U.S. but wherever we are conducting business around the world.
The companies who subcontract out to these factories need to join Bangladeshi labor groups and the government in stepping up regulation and safety standards at factories there. Currently most companies do not allow or require independent monitoring of their factories. The distance and complexity of the supply chain means companies often do not recognize their responsibility to workers in overseas factories and often deny production or involvement at factories where tragic fires and collapses have happened, even when clothing bearing their label or order sheets their name are found. This must change. Earlier this year Wal-Mart, Gap, and H&M rejected a 2011 plan that would have established an independent group of inspectors to monitor factories with the power to shut down any unsafe factories. The companies claimed the collective $500,000 a year it would cost to maintain the program was too costly and thus rejected the proposal. This focus on the bottom line and profit over people must change, and consumers have a role to play in demanding that these companies be accountable to the people making their products.
We as consumers have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with the people who make our clothes. While people in Bangladesh take to the streets and demand reform, we must as consumers turn to companies like Wal-Mart and Sears and require them to take action to improve working conditions in factories where they subcontract. These companies need to agree to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement and work with groups like the Workers Rights Consortium to ensure that every effort is being made to reform a supply chain that exploits workers for cheap products at an extraordinary cost. Every worker has dignity. Every job has dignity. To ensure that justice is upheld and that the rights and lives of workers are respected, we must reassess how we conduct business and we must take real, responsible action.