Retailers face new calls for change following factory collapse

By John Santore -- Medill News Service  |  April 30, 2013 at 5:49 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 30 -- Clothing retailers are facing renewed pressure to fundamentally change their relationship to subcontractors in developing countries following last week’s collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh

More than 380 garment workers have been found dead, with hundreds still missing. About 2,500 people have been rescued.

“It’s really important to highlight systemic failures that lead to these kinds of tragedies,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center, an NGO affiliated with the AFL-CIO. “It’s not an accident that these things happen.”

The accident in Savar, about 20 miles from Dhaka, the capital, has renewed a call by advocacy groups that retailers bear responsibility for worker safety. More than a dozen companies based in Europe and the United States bought goods made in the factory, according to evidence collected by the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent Washington-based organization that monitors labor conditions around the world.

The WRC has listed The Children’s Place, Cato Fashions and J.C. Penney as three American companies that did business with the factory.

“Companies are looking for the cheapest possible places to produce their goods, and they’re not asking, why are these places so inexpensive?” Bader-Blau said.

Bangladesh manufacturers met Monday with retailers in an effort to keep business in the country. Eighty percent of the country’s exports are from the garment industry.

Spokespeople for Cato and The Children’s Place said the Savar factory had previously manufactured clothing for their stores, but that no production was ongoing as of last week. However, WRC communications director Theresa Haas said that even if that was true, both companies had purchased goods made there in recent months.

A J.C. Penney statement said that “a small portion” of the Joe Fresh-brand clothing line it sells had been produced at the Savar factory.

Last week’s destruction will likely wind up as the worst garment industry disaster in Bangladesh’s history, but it was not the first. Most recently, a fire in November, 2012 killed 112 garment workers at a Tazreen Fashions workshop in Dhaka. A government investigation said those deaths resulted from “unpardonable negligence.” Workers had been ordered back to their stations by managers even after the blaze had begun.

Similarly, Bangladeshi police ordered the Savar factory evacuated the day before it fell. Cracks had appeared in the structure, which was deemed unsound. The building’s owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, who had added three illegal floors to the building, reportedly defended its safety. Workers were told to come in the next day. Thousands did.

A call for major reform

Cato, The Children’s Place and J.C. Penney have ethics codes that task their suppliers with meeting ethical standards for the treatment of workers. After the Tazreen fire, Wal-Mart, which sold goods made in the destroyed Dhaka factory, donated $1.6 million to an NGO that conducts workplace safety training. And on Monday, a meeting between representatives from dozens of major retailers and Bangladeshi manufacturers took place, after which the group announced the formation of a panel to address safety issues.

But advocates say the path forward is clear.

“What we need is a massive program of repair and renovation and retrofitting funded by the brands and retailers who can afford it to ensure that these buildings come up to the building code,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC. “If that is done, we will see an end to this horror. If it isn’t done, the horror will continue. It’s as simple as that.”

Haas said the price tag for that kind of project in Bangladesh would be $3 billion over five years, a cost that could be paid by raising the price of each garment made in the nation by an average of 10 cents.

The WRC has renewed its calls for the reconstruction plan to be adopted. It also called for companies to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire Building and Safety Agreement, a proposal put forward by activist groups that would create an independent body to monitor factories like the one in Savar. Factories would be required to comply with the body's findings.

The International Labor Rights Forum, a U.S.-based organization that advocates for workers’ rights, released a petition calling on Walmart, H&M, and Gap, all of which sell clothing manufactured in Bangladesh, to sign the agreement.

Neither Cato Fashions nor The Children’s Place responded to questions asking for an official position on these plans. J.C. Penney spokeswoman Daphne Avila said that “there are several other proposals on the table that are seeking an industry-wide approach to solve these factory safety concerns in Bangladesh,” adding that the company was “actively involved in these discussions and will certainly consider one of these proposals currently in development.”

Voting with your wallet

Also at issue is how consumers will react to last week’s event.

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the ILRF, said that while companies do respond to boycotts, changing average consumer behavior is “a steep mountain to climb.” She said the IRLF was primarily focused on engaging “consumer activists” who will advocate for changes to corporate practices.

Gearhart, who recently concluded a 12-city U.S. tour with two Bangladeshi activists, including a worker who survived the Tanzeen fire, said such tragedies have raised awareness on global working conditions.

“We have never had, in our 29 years of history, so much press attention,” she said. The question, she said, was, “can we sustain it?”

Nova thought that outcome was possible. “One always hopes that an event of this enormity will galvanize the public in a way that forces brands and retailers, if for no other reason than to protect their reputations, to take action,” Nova said.

He referenced the shocking Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the 1911 disaster that killed 146 garment workers in New York City. That day, he said, produced “an entire national movement of social reform that transformed workplace safety in this country.”

At the time, journalist W.G. Shepherd provided one of the most vivid accounts of the scene, its gruesome details reminiscent of recent reports from Savar. Shepherd had watched dozens of workers jump from the factory’s ninth floor to escape the flames spreading toward them.

“I learned a new sound -- a horrible sound,” he wrote. “It was the thud made by a speeding, living body on a stone walk.”

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