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Published: June, 2013; Vol 10, Num 1

 

Labor History Re-Runs in Bangladesh

In a tragedy of global proportions, more than a thousand mostly young women in Bangladesh were killed April 24 when the nine-story building in which they worked collapsed. Now, ramifications are playing out around the world.

Signatories with IndustriALL

H&M

Inditex

Primark/Penny

Tesco

PVH

Tchibo

Benetton

El Corte Ingles

Mango

Marks & Spencer

Stockmann

N Brown Group

G-Star

C & A

Carrefour

KiK

Helly Hensen

Aldi South

Aldi North

New Look

Mothercare

Next

Loblaws

Sainsbury's

WE Europe

Esprit

Rewe

Lidl

Hess Natur

Switcher

A&F

The tragedy is reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that sparked the modern occupational safety and health movement in 1911.

The Bangledeshi women sewed in Rana Plaza garment factories that are owned (or operated under contract) by Wal-Mart, Benetton, the Children's Place, DressBarn, Primark and other popular brands that crowd the racks of clothing and department stores all across North America and Europe.

Virtually every clothing retailer in the world is linked to production facilities in Bangladesh. It is one of the world's poorest nations, and garment workers earn about $40 per month. Pope Francis condemned the conditions as "slave labor."

The collapse, which killed 1,127 workers, followed a fire at a nearby clothing factory in November, 2012, that killed 111. A fire at another factory killed eight workers in early May, 2013.

Just days before its collapse, the Rena Plaza building had been audited and deemed to meet the requirements of the Business Social Compliance Initiative Code of Conduct, a standard devised by the Foreign Trade Association in 2003 after an earlier round of condemnation of safety, health and labor practices in Bangladesh and other nations.

Denouncing this system of company-sponsored safety inspections, General Secretary Jyrki Raina of IndustriALL Global Union said, "[T]hat model…has led to industrial homicide." Since the collapse, workers throughout the Ashulia region have been on a spontaneous strike, demanding reforms and a death sentence for the building owner. Manufacturing has come to a stop.

As the May 15 deadline for clothing companies to sign a legally-binding safety and health agreement with IndustriALL approached, most European brands signed on, led by Sweden's H&M. Notably, two U.S. companies, Walmart and Gap, expressly stated that they would not participate. Walmart announced a plan to re-inspect its facilities using its own inspectors.

Independent inspections are the central principle of the IndustriALL agreement. In addition, it establishes worker-led health and safety committees, union access to factories and the right of workers to refuse dangerous work.

IndustriALL, which represents more than 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing industries, also seeks reform of Bangladesh's harsh labor laws.

Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi micro-loan pioneer who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, urged manufacturers and Western retailers to ensure that garment workers are paid a living wage. "This might be something like 50 cents per hour, twice the level typically found in Bangladesh. Such a minimum wage would be an integral part of complete reform of the industry, which would in turn help prevent tragedies like [this one]."

Estimates of the impact of a wage increase on retail prices could not be found. However, according to Scott Nova at the D.C.-based Workers Rights Consortium, the cost of structural upgrades to make all Bangladesh factories safe would be about $3 billion, only about eight cents per garment.

"For a major retailer, with 5 percent of its production in Bangladesh, which is typical, the increased cost would be about four one-thousandths of a percent of total corporate revenue," he calculates. "[I]f all of the increase is passed along to consumers, and subjected to mark ups, and assuming the increased costs are spread across a company's product line (rather than just raising prices on the garments from Bangladesh), consumers could see a cost increase of a penny or two across all of a retailer's apparel products."

Yunus, labor unions and a variety of NGOs are asking consumers to note the companies that have signed agreements with IndustriALL, as well as those who have not, and let that influence their future clothes buying decisions. "Walmart, the world's largest retailer, is out of step," said UNI Global Union Secretary Philip Jennings. "By not signing up, the Walmart brand sinks to a new low. Equally, Gap's refusal to join is a mistake that shoppers will never forget. We will make progress without them."

[Steve Clark]