Opinion

The Great Debate

Can Western companies put an end to Bangladesh factory disasters?

By Pramila Jayapal
April 26, 2013

On Wednesday, while a Bangladeshi survivor of last November’s Tazreen fire that killed 113 people was talking to a Seattle audience about the need for corporations to be held liable for safety violations, it happened again. That day, a factory housing dozens of garment manufacturers in Bangladesh collapsed outside of Dhaka. Since then the death toll has skyrocketed to more than 300 workers, with hundreds more still trapped in the rubble.

Could it be that the so-called convenience of economic globalization is collapsing, too?

Sumi Abedin survived the Tazreen fire in a Bangladeshi garment factory by jumping out a window, breaking an arm and a leg. The Tazreen factory manufactured clothes for a number of Western companies, including Wal-Mart Stores, Sears, Sean John and Disney.

Workers smelled smoke and tried to leave the building but they were told it was a false alarm and were sent back to their sewing machines. As the room filled with smoke, workers tried to escape but found doors and windows locked — apparently to prevent workers from stealing garments. Abedin said she jumped not to save her life but for another reason. “I wanted my family to be able to identify my dead body. If I had stayed there, it would have burned and they would not have been able to find me,” Abedin told a packed audience.

Kalpona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, is traveling with Abedin on a 12-state tour in the United States. They are demanding fair compensation from Wal-Mart and a legally binding agreement from manufacturers to ensure fire and building safety and worker rights. “This is a pattern of gross negligence on the part of multinational corporations,” Akter said. “They know what is happening, but they are not stopping it.”

In the past six years, excluding the most recent collapse, there have been 700 reported fire and building violation deaths in Bangladesh. In the most recent incident, workers were reportedly ordered to go to work even though a crack in the building had been discovered the day before. Akter and her colleagues call the factories “death traps,” places where workers go every day knowing they might not come out.

Wal-Mart buys more than $1 billion worth of apparel from Bangladesh, making it the second-largest buyer of apparel there. In the aftermath of the Tazreen fire, the New York Times reported that in April 2011, Wal-Mart participated in a meeting at which major corporations considered an agreement calling on suppliers could make safety improvements in a system they knew to be highly dangerous. Two participants in the meeting told the New York Times that Wal-Mart played the lead role in rejecting an effort to have retailers pay more to ensure factory safety because it was not “financially feasible.” For many, that claim is hard to fathom in light of Wal-Mart’s $15 billion profit in 2011. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization, says it would cost big brand companies less than 10 cents more per garment to ensure safe factories.

The garment manufacturing sector in Bangladesh is a $20 billion industry. It accounts for 78 percent of Bangladesh’s exports and employs 4 million workers — 70 percent of whom are women — in 5,000 factories. It’s a high-stakes industry for the government, and one that’s rife with corruption. Several elected politicians own garment factories themselves. Abedin said that when building auditors came to the factory, she and her co-workers were told to report that they worked fewer hours than was true, wore respiratory masks, kept windows and doors open, and never faced physical or verbal abuse—all untrue, she said.

Audits have been criticized as rubber stamps allowing corporations to avoid accountability. Even when safety issues are raised in audits, little is done to resolve them. After the Tazreen fire, it came out that Wal-Mart actually received a May 2011 audit of the Tazreen factory classifying it as a “high-risk factory.” Wal-Mart sent a letter to the factory’s owners warning them that two more such findings in two years would lead Wal-Mart to suspend its orders.

In an interview in Seattle on Thursday, Liana Foxvog, organizing director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said it is unacceptable but standard practice for apparel buyers to give a “three strikes, you’re out” letter instead of immediately demanding fixes. And, she said, “Companies like Wal-Mart also never tell the workers of the hazards and dangers that they know about. So where is the accountability to human lives?” Foxvog says that is why it is essential that corporations sign the legally binding agreement, to hold them accountable for what they know and how they source their products all the way down the global supply chain.

Although Akter and Abedin went to Bentonville, Arkansas, to Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters, no one would meet with them. (Wal-Mart did not return a call seeking comment for this column.) It is unclear whether Wal-Mart also was purchasing clothes from manufacturers involved in the latest factory collapse. Either way, however, activists hope this latest factory collapse will bring enough public pressure on multinational corporations to sign the agreement around building and fire safety and provide compensation for victims.

When Abedin was asked what motivates her to keep going, she looked resolutely at the crowd. “My friend who died in the fire,” she said. “She keeps me going. I am doing this for her.”

PHOTO: Rescue workers look for trapped garment workers at the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, 30 km (19 miles) outside Dhaka April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Bira

Comments
14 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

No, Westerns companies won’t, even if they can. The bottom line here is the profit margin, where the cost of labor is exceptionally low in Bangladesh. It’s up to the government of Bangladesh to put a stop to these practices, by having regulations in place like building codes and safe work environments.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive
 

If western corporations insist they will only do business with manufacturers that adhere to strict safety standards, that will likely drive up the cost. The corporations might then take their business elsewhere in search of cheaper products. So while Bangladeshi lives might have been saved, jobs might be lost and this would have other negative consequences.

Posted by ronryegadfly | Report as abusive
 

Rubbish article that does not really address the problem. It has nothing to do with western companies. Change has to come from within and western influence will not change that. It is sad that writers think that western influence may change things…laughable..there is a much deeper issue at work here, than simple western influence!

Posted by Susan_hk | Report as abusive
 

“…..public pressure on multinational corporations to sign the agreement around building and fire safety and provide compensation for victims.”

Provide compensation for victims? Why? That’s as stupid as asking me to provide compensation for injured auto workers just because I bought one of their cars.

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive
 

Three hundred people – and counting – in this building alone died, all so we can each save $1.00 on a pair of jeans. And Walmart, with most other manufacturers, keeps sending jobs overseas to “Emerging Markets” and no one says much about it.

Americans have sold their morality to corporate profit and cheap goods.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

American companies are content to use the Sgt Schultz approach: They see nothing; they know nothing.

They will always rationalize cutting costs more and more, as they reap the profits higher and higher. Out of sight, out of mind.

Until advocates can tie Walmart and other companies to the deaths resulting in the low cost companies they are happy to use, nothing is going to change. And if improvements are forced in Bangladesh, they will simply shift purchases to other countries that are willing to cut corners on safety, and pay workers even less. Corporations know there are desperate poor people out there, and are more then willing to exploit them.

Consumers need to ask one basic question. Of the $1.00 saved on that pair of jeans, how much of that dollar was in savings to the consumer, and how much was pocketed by the corporation as higher compensation to the executives?

Corporations have been declared people. Consumers need to demand those ‘people’ act morally.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive
 

Ironically two of the very important reasons for western companies to move their manufacturing to China and other places are to save penalty taxes for environment damages and drive down the cost of safety operating standards that could have otherwise occurred in their (western) countries. If they push for environment and safety standards in the countries who offered cost-savings for them by avoid the environmental and safety responsibilities (the people’s lives in those countries are not their responsibility), then why do they ever have to offshore their manufacturing, they can profitably operate from their own neighborhood. These are the loop-holes introduced by globalization, which has both good and bad cause and effects.

Posted by Regular | Report as abusive
 

If the Bangladesh authorities aren’t interested or won’t take action, nothing will change. It doesn’t even work with US companies in the US! Consider the recent Texas fertilizer plant explosion. Asking corporations to self-police is like the old adage, “We’ve got the fox guarding the chicken coop.”

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

I wonder what the conditions are at the factories producing clothes for sale in Bangladesh? Or India, Pakistan, China, etc.

The liability here lies with the authorities and property owners (although this is a moot point). Free markets will utilize the lowest cost sources of labor and supply. This is a tragedy – however, many of us seem to be blaming this on the wrong causes – “western greed”, etc – rather than the obvious and most simple answer: a builder likely cut corners to reduce building costs, probably at the factory owner’s request,and a few bribes were paid to get necessary permits.

Posted by AS1111 | Report as abusive
 

More big government regulations are just job killers!

Sound familiar?

Posted by NJThinker | Report as abusive
 

The issue is not as easy as it is presented in the article and the comments. Behind every Western company are consumers who benefit from the cheap labor and do not ask any questions when T-shirts are sold for just $5.95. They are collectively as guilty as Western corporations. Unfortunately, these consumers can hide in anonymity.

Even if just one Western company were to take the lead in responsible entrepreneurship, it could make a difference. However, it initially puts itself at a competitive disadvantage, which it has to overcome.

On the one side, it has to gain consumers’ trust, so that it can sell it’s products in the marketplace. On the other side, it needs to satisfy its shareholders, who invested in these companies.

At the same time, the company relies on suppliers, whom they also need to trust to be able to purchase garments which have been made in a responsible manner. These companies, too, strive to deliver a profit to their owners.

Then there are the regulatory bodies. Whether these be government authorities to check on building or fire safety or private certifiers, who audit environmental standards or human rights. They also carry a responsibility in the supply chain and need to be trusted.

Unfortunately, it is also true that some factory workers steel from their employer or try to otherwise take advantage of them. How can we establish an atmosphere of trust here?

The recent disasters in the garment industry tell me two things:

1) Like in the banking industry, greed eventually delivers undesirable consequences.

2) the economic model of competition and control is not working

It’s time to do something about it. There are plenty of new models out there, worthy to be considered. I would like to hear of any company interested to make a change for the better.

contact me via bangladesh@fastmail.fm

Posted by hskoppek | Report as abusive
 

If Walmart tries to run Bangladesh, the US and Walmart will be accused of imperialism. They can’t win this one.

Posted by Yaakovweeeeeee | Report as abusive
 

“If Walmart tries to run Bangladesh, the US and Walmart will be accused of imperialism. They can’t win this one.”

They most certainly could win, if they wanted to. If, when unsafe conditions are identified, they could simply give a time frame in which the problems must be fixed. If the problems weren’t fixed in that time frame, they could take their business elsewhere. Once that happened a few times and it was made known that Wal-Mart (and other retailers) is serious about worker safety, the factories would comply. No government intervention would be required.

But Western retailers don’t care about the safety and health of workers in their supply chains. And they don’t care because, overall, we as customers don’t care. People can point fingers at Wal-Mart and authorities in Bangladesh all they want, but the ultimate responsibility lies with us.

Posted by wilsedw | Report as abusive
 

I wish people would take @hskoppek’s advice in their last paragraph. Unfortunately, I hold out no hope that any improvements in the quality of workplace life for the workers of Bangladesh will occur as a result of change efforts by businesses or governmental figures. Capitalism-based economic models allow no room for social policies or any other quasi-religious consierations, so businesses will not effect change. Governmental figures rely on the cash from business activites to fund their wellbeing (and the wellbeing of their country’s citizens), so they will not want to bite the hand that feeds them. That leaves the American consumer … oh dear.

Posted by VirtualThumb | Report as abusive
 

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