Panel – Factory safety and workers’ rights in the Bangladesh apparel industry

On April 24, 2013, the garment industry experienced the worst disaster on record when Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed killing 1,129 workers and injuring 2,500 more. In the few years preceding the collapse of Rana Plaza, hundreds had been killed in fires and other building collapses, leading activists to campaign for more brand name responsibility.

The Rana disaster finally resulted in over 70 companies, mostly European, signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The Accord was rejected by most US companies as creating too much liability and involving special interests (i.e. unions), precisely two of its strengths according to labor rights experts. Instead US companies struck out on their own in July with the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative agreement (signed by 17 companies, led by Wal-Mart and the Gap).

Here we present a forum on these recent events with commentary from three sociologists who are experts on global apparel supply chains and the struggle over labor rights in factories in developing countries.

Jennifer Bair provides an in-depth examination of the differences between the Accord and the Wal-Mart/Gap agreement.

Jill Esbenshade argues that the Wal-Mart/Gap agreement is actually a step backward for labor rights.

Gay Seidman discusses the obstacles to improving basic factory health and safety conditions in developing countries in general, argues that government involvement is necessary for real change, and evaluates the recent announcement by the Obama administration that it is suspending trade privileges for Bangladesh due to concerns about labor rights violations and safety.

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