The death toll following the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh on April 24 has climbed to more than 1,000. There are hundreds of people – mostly women – injured and countless others still missing. In the wake of this tragedy, perhaps the deadliest ever garment-factory disaster, it is clear factory safety must be reexamined, and worker’s rights in Bangladesh must be given the highest priority.
Deadly factory disasters are, unfortunately, nothing new. Last fall, NCL observed that the Bangladeshi factory fires that keep killing workers are reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the United States in 1911. That fire in New York City killed 146 — mostly immigrant – workers, galvanizing the labor community and government to make workplaces safer. Factories put in place fire codes, sprinklers, and new restrictions related to smoking and open flames inside the factory. Advocates hope the recent factory disasters in Bangladesh will have a similar effect on improving factory conditions for workers abroad.
The current situation in Bangladesh is complex, and there is much blame to go around. It would be easy to point to the Bangladeshi government, which often fails to enforce worker safety laws. What’s shocking is that a mere 24 hours before the Rana Plaza collapse, police warned that the building was unsafe to occupy after large structural cracks appeared in the support pillars. Factory owners decided to reopen the building the next day, forcing workers back inside. Those who refused to enter the building were told they would have to work three days unpaid for every day they missed.
The local and federal government in Bangladesh also has not provided a secure environment for workers to unionize and gain collective bargaining rights. Although unions are technically legal in Bangladesh, many reports suggest that those who act to protect themselves and fellow garment workers often face an uncertain fate. Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi worker activist, disappeared under questionable circumstances last September. Days later, Islam’s body was found; he had been tortured and murdered. Many suspect his death was politically motivated.
It would also be easy for retailers to leave Bangladesh, following an example set by Disney earlier this week. To shed the label “Made in Bangladesh” might be a good PR move, for any affiliation with a country so riddled with worker safety issues can only have a negative impact on sales. Companies may be tempted to find the next frontier for cheap labor, a country that has not yet been burdened with the negative reports attributed to Bangladesh, and begin making cheap garments there instead.
This solution, however, could strip 3.5 million Bangladeshi workers of a paycheck. The garment industry pays workers an average of $38 per month, and while that figure may seem insignificant in America, in Bangladesh it provides an opportunity to escape poverty. If other retailers were to follow Disney’s lead, it could devastate the Bangladesh economy and reverse years of upward mobility among the poor.
The major retailers – those companies that reap billions in profits from selling products made in Bangladesh – bear the responsibility to mandate higher safety standards and worker protections. These companies include some of the biggest retailers in the world such as Walmart, J.C. Penney, Mango, Benetton, H&M, The Children’s Place, GAP, and Dress Barn. Currently, many of these companies perform social audits, a practice we and other labor groups call a façade. A 60-page report from the AFL-CIO claims the social auditing program accommodates major corporations at the expense of protecting workers. Reports of factories being certified as safe just weeks before a collapse or fire raise serious question about these so-called safety audits.
So what can consumers and activists do?
Congressman George Miller, the Ranking Member of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, laid the groundwork for a new independent and transparent monitoring system called the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. This template would more thoroughly protect worker’s rights and guarantee minimum safety requirements in factories, including that audits be conducted by independent safety experts that timely repairs be made to violating facilities, and that brands terminate contracts with a factory that does not meet high standards for keeping workers safe. Further, this agreement provides labor protections for workers. Major retailers including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, IZOD, Arrow and GH Bass & Co., have signed on to this new agreement. Others retailers must now be pressured by consumers and activists to follow.
While Rep. Miller’s proposal takes important steps to ensure increased factory safety, there is more that can be done. Western retailers must take independent steps to ensure increased worker protection. If the Bangladeshi government lacks the capacity to provide sufficient labor oversight, it is the job of those companies who make massive amounts of money from Bangladeshi labor to ensure those workers can safely unionize. Adidas, this week, announced a new program that encourages workers in Asia to anonymously report grievances through text messages directly to the company. The ability to blow the whistle without fear of being fired or blacklisted is an essential worker protection.
Those companies who play by the rules, and show they are willing to make investments to keep their workers safe, should be rewarded for doing so. For 114 years, NCL has worked to eliminate harsh, unregulated working conditions in factories. Florence Kelley, NCL’s first Executive Secretary, championed a “White Label” program over 100 years ago. This NCL seal of approval was displayed on stores that fought against child labor practices and endorsed 8-hour workdays. Consumers were urged to boycott stores that did not earn this certification.
Would a certification program work today? A certification process, like the White Label debuted by NCL a century ago, would give consumers the opportunity to check labels and only spend money on products from those companies who demonstrate the willingness to protect workers throughout their supply chain.
There are modern examples of how this can work. The GoodWeave label serves this function for the rug industry. In order to earn certification, companies must sign a legally binding contract to: adhere to child labor protection standards, allow unannounced random inspections by local inspectors, and pay a licensing fee to support the monitoring of the GoodWeave program. A similar labeling program could be implemented for clothing. If consumer awareness were raised and people began to consistently check labels, only those companies who are socially aware and willing to take the necessary steps for certification would thrive.
Congressman Miller has proposed a rational, realistic model to improve worker safety abroad. The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement will create a binding contract for Western retailers and ensure they play by the rules. This issue deserves more legislative attention, and consumers need to understand that they too serve a role in protecting worker’s abroad. A petition on Change.org urging retailers to sign onto the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement has already collected more than 100,000 signatures. Consumers should sign the petition, check the labels on the clothes they purchase, and continue to put pressure on retailers to protect worker’s rights and ensure factories are safe.