But in the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire last November, which killed at least 117 people, and the Rana Plaza building collapse in April, which killed more than 1,100, European and US retailers–operating on separate but parallel paths–have come together to act. Actually, to be more specific, they have come together to promise to act.
There’s lot of controversy about the US effort, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, because it does not include the meaningful participation of organized labor, at least not yet. But, as I write today in Guardian Sustainable Business, it’s a step forward.
Here’s how my story begins:
At long last, US apparel retailers have joined together to improve safety for garment workers in Bangladesh – most of them poor women, toiling in hazardous workplaces at the bottom of the bottom of the global supply chain.
Gap, Walmart, Target, Macy’s, VF Corporation and a dozen other companies that formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety say they will set common safety standards, inspect all their factories in Bangladesh, make the results public, provide loans for repairs and give workers more power to protect themselves.
Is that sufficient? Labour rights groups say no. As the US companies unveiled their alliance in Washington, student protesters gathered outside, chanting “Shame on Walmart” and decrying the plan as a “fake safety scheme.”
It’s not. It’s a serious plan, with some money behind it, that includes a commitment to transparency, and mechanisms to enable workers to speak out about unsafe conditions. It’s not perfect – the alliance’s glaring flaw is a lack of participation from unions – but the US companies hope to bring in Bangladeshi and international labour groups.
The story goes on to describe the key role played by Gap and its executives in bringing the US retailers together. Gap has been deeply engaged in Bangladesh since December 2010–before Tazreen and Rana Plaza–when a fire at one of its suppliers’ factories killed 29 workers.
The sad truth is that worker-safety issues have plagued the Bangladesh textile industry from its beginnings in the 1980s. In 2005, in a Fortune story about corporate responsibility called Cops of the Global Village, I wrote about the collapse of a garment factory that killed more than 80 people.
Here’s a not-so-fun fact about Bangladesh: Of the 14,000 garment factories there, fewer than half are registered with the government. The government has neither the money nor the expertise to regulate factory safety. Worst of all, it may not have the will because the garment industry barons are politically powerful. This dynamic is not unique to Bangladesh. As I write in The Guardian: “So far, the Bangladeshi government has had no more success in cracking down on garment factories than the US government has had in strictly regulating Wall Street.” Some two dozen factory owners are members of the Bangladeshi parliament, The Economist reports.
The European retailers, working closely with global unions, have made what sounds like an open-ended commitment to make the Bangladesh garment factories safer. If they keep that commitment, that would be wonderful. We’ll have to see.
The US retailers took a much more cautious approach, promised to inspect all their factories, make all their findings public and empower workers to anonymous report violations. The thinking behind their approach is that the ultimate responsibility to protect the workers lies with factory owners and the government. US brands can help make that happen, but there are limits to what they can reasonably be expected to do.
The global apparel industry has compelling business reasons to get serious about fixing the problem, and they go beyond reputational issues. Bangladeshi garment workers are the lowest paid in the world. The minimum wage is $38 a month, lower than any other country in Asia. As costs rise in China, the garment industry would like to do more, not less, business in Bangladesh, even as the government there intends to raise wages, as this excellent story (behind a paywall) in the Wall Street Journal points out. And before you decide that $38/month is by definition exploitative, remember that the factory jobs offer a way out of rural poverty and an opportunity for greater independence to the 4 million people who work in the industry, most of them women. The brutal logic of global capitalism is that companies are going to seek out low-cost labor, or be left behind as their competitors do.
What’s become clear in the last year is that the company-by-company, factory-by-factory efforts to monitor and improve conditions have been inadequate. The significance of both the EU Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the US Alliance is the they are industry-wide, highly visible efforts that promise transparency. If all goes well–and that’s a huge if–they should bring about the end of the beginning for garment workers in Bangladesh, and lead to a safer industry.
You can read the rest of my Guardian Sustainable Business story here.