The Rana Plaza disaster in April — in which at least 1,129 workers were killed when a factory building outside Dhaka collapsed — wasn’t the first deadly accident at a garment factory in Bangladesh in recent memory. Last November, 112 workers died in a factory fire at Tazreen Fashions, which made clothes for Walmart and Sears, among others. 64 garment workers died in a building collapse in Savar in 2005, and more than 400 garment workers have perished in at least 213 factory fires between 2006 and 2009.
The huge loss of life in the Rana disaster and the revelation of the inhumane conditions that workers toiled under — as well as the discovery that, prior to the building’s collapse, an engineer had said cracks in the structure meant it was unsafe — have been a chilling reminder of what goes into creating the cheap clothing on sale in Western stores.
Last Thursday, the U.S. made an important step in advocating for international workers’ safety by suspending Bangladesh’s duty-free trade privileges. These special privileges were part of a program called the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and are meant to promote economic growth in developing countries.
The U.S.’s suspension of these privileges is an important, though mostly symbolic, step. As the BBC’s Mahfuz Sadique in Dhaka points out, the decision affects less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s nearly $5 billion exports to the U.S. But the decision is significant because it could deter U.S. companies from investing in Bangladesh while simultaneously influencing the European Union’s review about similar privileges to Bangladesh. The E.U. is the largest market for Bangladesh’s garment industry, comprising 60 percent of its exports.
Bangladesh Government Expresses Anger About Suspension of Trade Privileges
Bangladesh leaders have criticized the U.S.’s decision for being too harsh given that the government has implemented several improvements to regulations and safety inspections at garment factories.
But the need for taking action is apparent. About four million people in Bangladesh, 80 percent of them women, work in the garment industry, and their lives are routinely endangered by working in unsafe conditions. Despite hundreds of factory fires or accidents in Bangladesh from 1990-2012, no factory owners have yet to be charged with a crime. As the New York Times points out, Bangladesh’s legal system “has rarely favored anyone confronting the power structure.” Some factory owners are now members of the country’s Parliament; others help to finance political campaigns.
The judges at factory owners’ legal proceedings have themselves made note of the centrality of the garment industry for the country’s economy. Clothing accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s manufacturing exports.
Global Outrage At Apple and Foxconn Has Had Results
The case of the Taiwan-based company and Apple supplier Foxconn, the largest electronic contract manufacturer in the world and one of China’s largest employers, offers a powerful reminder as to why we need to keep up the international pressure on Bangladesh. Western consumers have been appalled to realize that Chinese workers assembling iPhones and iPads were working long shifts with excessive overtime in hazardous conditions in factories in China. At least 26 have committed suicide, and many were horribly injured after explosions and fires at Foxconn factories.
Amid an outpouring of global outrage, Apple hired a nonprofit labor group, the Washington-based Fair Labor Association, to inspect the plants it uses. In February 2012, Foxconn announced that it would increase worker wages by about 25 percent (to total about $400 a month) and decrease excessive overtime. Apple has also increased audits of its other suppliers and found multiple cases of underage workers, discrimination and wage problems.
But this past May, the Fair Labor Association reported that employees at Foxconn factories are still working too long. Consumers need to keep doing their research to find out the stories behind the things — shirts, pants, shoes — that we use every day.
Some retailers have pledged their support for improving safety conditions for workers by signing a legally binding initiative. But Walmart and other corporations have not signed on and would prefer it if we just looked at the numbers on the price tag of the clothes they sell and forgot about the Rana Plaza disaster. When the story behind those cheap prices is as full of horrific details as this and other recent tragedies, we need to ask ourselves if we really want to wear clothes made not only with sweat, but also with blood.
Photo via v i p e z