Opinion

The Great Debate

Can Western companies put an end to Bangladesh factory disasters?

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.”

How Apple, and everyone, can solve the sweatshop problem

Every few years brings us another sweatshop offender. In the 1990s it was Disney, and then Nike and Gap. The 2000s brought us Wal-Mart. The past few weeks Apple has been in the crosshairs.

One question is of paramount importance: How can we use this current public conversation to finally drive a different outcome? What must companies do so that 15 years after Kathie Lee Gifford tearfully became the first sweatshop poster child, workers who make and grow products for global consumers are paid fairly, protected from danger and free to advocate for themselves without fear of reprisal?

The good news is that these years of effort have created robust experience from which to identify what has gone wrong. The fundamental driver of “sweatshops” is that multinationals do not place value on good working conditions in their supply chains. This does not mean that a company doesn’t care about how those workers are treated, or that the company intends to act unethically or exploitatively. To the contrary, big companies require good conditions through vendor standards and “codes of conduct.” They build corporate responsibility departments whose staff have budgets to reduce the risk of bad working conditions at supplier factories and farms. But their work is much like the arcade game Whac-A-Mole: A problem arises in one factory that they take steps to fix, while other problems fester and ultimately break through the surface elsewhere.

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