Preventable tragedies

In the past few months, two disastrous factory fires and a massive building collapse have reminded us how dangerous apparel factories can be: airborne lint and dust can catch fire from an electrical spark; reverberating machinery can collapse weak structures.

Our shock should remind us of something more, however: these disasters were entirely preventable. In the century since New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, we have learned how to avoid industrial tragedies.  Labor activists, government reformers, consumer advocates and even enlightened employers know how to protect workers’ health and safety;industry groups and the ILO have long published reliable standards for decent work.

We know what measures create safer working conditions, and we can calculate minimum wage levels that allow workers to feed their families.  Most countries have passed laws that could protect workers from dangerous conditions and from exploitative employers; most brands have corporate codes of conduct that are supposed to reflect consumers’ desire to know that the shirts on their backs weren’t produced by slave labor.

Why, then, do we see so many factory disasters, so many deaths, in the 21st century? Why does it seem so difficult to prevent disasters that are, in fact, preventable? What might push employers to comply with basic health and safety laws, to protect workers from these entirely preventable disasters? And what international leverage might prompt governments to make sure their citizens are safe?

In some ways, the cause of the problem is obvious: global supply chains have stretched beyond national boundaries, producers around over the world compete for access to global markets. In the process, corners get cut — sometimes at the expense of workers’ lives.   In the apparel industry, factories compete for contracts to produce for major brands. A few cents extra for one tee-shirt might seem nothing to a consumer, but to a multinational looking to produce thousands, those cents add up; the factory that promises to sew that shirt for a few cents less will get the contract.

Competing for those global deals, small factory-owners are tempted to throw safety out the window: implementing measures to protect workers’ health and safety, or paying living wages, will lose the contract, and the profits.

Over the years, consumer groups have called on global brands to require their subcontractors to comply with basic safety and wage rules — but the complicated web of global supply chains frustrates efforts to hold brands accountable for the actions of their subcontractors. Most brands have adopted corporate codes of conduct, and many claim to monitor their supply chains, but this system has gaping holes. Most companies have codes but no monitors, or use inhouse monitors, with inspections focused more on quality and cost than on working conditions (pdf).

Some large brands hire independent NGOs to monitor subcontractors, but even well-intentioned monitors have little power to improve conditions.  Monitors cannot require factories to fix problems; worse, because these NGOs depend on corporations for access to factories and for funding, monitors are tempted to downplay any problems they find.

Recent disasters underscore, once again, the limits of corporate monitoring. In one of the factories that burnt last year, monitors had identified serious violations — yet labels from global brands were found in the ashes, suggesting that brands continued to place orders anyway. In a Karachi factory last year, an internationally-acclaimed ‘independent’ NGOs did an on-site inspection only weeks before disaster struck; The factory passed with flying colors, but a few weeks later, hundreds died because fire exits were blocked.

What about government enforcement of labor laws?  In today’s highly competitive global economy, jobs depend on factories staying open, and development strategies require exports. National leaders view private employers as the motor of economic growth, and politicians depend on business leaders for support; politicians and even labor leaders often view keeping factories open as a higher priority than complying with labor law. Especially in poor countries, governments and labor unions face persistent pressure from business elites, who insist that  ‘global competitiveness’ requires weakening already-lax labor regulations, and pushing workers harder.

And in too many countries — including Bangladesh — workers’ efforts to demand stronger workplace protections are blocked; blacklists, attacks on activists,  even assassinations, create a climate of fear, silencing workers.

In this kind of atmosphere, employers operate with a sense of impunity, with little fear that they will be punished for skipping basic safety steps.  In Bangladesh this year, a government engineer warned factory owners that visible cracks suggested the Rana Plaza complex was on the verge of collapse, and terrified workers begged to stay outside the building. Even so,employers insisted that workers return to work, apparently unconcerned about either their workers’ safety, or about any chance they would be held responsible.

Individual consumer boycotts will not change these systemic dynamics, and even global campaigns by international  NGOs have failed to push most factory-owners to  spend more money on working conditions. We need new kinds of leverage, to push governments to enforce the law, to push global brands and their subcontractors to accept their legal obligations.

In this context, the Obama administration’s recent decision to link Bangladesh’s access toAmerican markets to its efforts to improve labor law enforcement seems like a breakthrough.In mid-2013, at the urging of the AFL-CIO, the US  warned that unless Bangladesh does more to protect “internationally-recognized  labor rights”, the US will suspended tariff privileges granted under the WTO’s Generalized System of Preferences.

The steps required are explicit: Bangladesh must hire more labor inspectors, increase efforts to ensure that all factories comply with basic health, safety, labor and building codes, and increase transparency by publishing specific factory inspection reports. Further, the US has asked Bangladesh to take specific steps in relation to the garment industry, including linkingexport licenses to companies’ respect for workers’ rights.

Clearly, this tactic will tarnish Bangladesh’s reputation as an acceptable site for outsourcing. Less than one percent of Bangladesh’s $4.5 billion worth of exports to the US is currently covered by tariff privileges, so the financial impact of the step will be relatively small; few jobs will be lost.  But by underscoring Bangladesh’s regulatory failure, the American move could prompt large multinationals to think twice before sourcing from Bangladesh.

Moreover,  the European Union — which, unlike the US, does grant tariff privileges to clothing made in Bangladesh — might follow the US example.  An EU decision to revoke tariff privileges would raise prices on the roughly  60 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports currently headed to European markets, hurting Bangladesh’s  ability to compete for brands’ contracts.

For decades, Bangladesh has built its economic development strategy on export-oriented manufacture;  the threat that labor violations could exclude its manufacturers  from competing for brands’ contracts will hold real weight. Could it push Bangladesh’s government to take on a more proactive role, to protect its citizens from abuse and from danger at work?

Variations on this approach have had surprising impact in the past, in places as different as the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, and Burma. In each case, a Democratic administration used threats of blocking access to American markets to gain leverage, demanding that governments strengthen labor rights. The results are never perfect, but there is evidence that in the context of export-dependent development, US trade-related pressure can push governments to strengthen protections for workers and for labor activists, and force employers to comply.

Of course, US foreign policy is not the perfect mechanism for protecting international workers’ rights. Labor activists around the world have resisted the suggestion that powerful states should define labor rights around the world; American foreign policy is more likely to reflect multinational companies’ concerns than workers’, and even when US unions do speak up, labor leaders in less-industrialized regions have reason to be cynical about underlying protectionism. Surely, in an ideal world, workers in places like Bangladesh would be empowered to speak on their own behalf, rather than depending on US trade representatives to decide which labor protections matter most.

But as recent disasters make all too clear, Bangladesh’s workers’ voices have been silenced, by government inaction and employer impunity. It is time to find new points of leverage. Inthe wake of hundreds of dead, this strategy — however problematic — offer the most immediate hope. Especially if it is combined with EU pressure, the US can use the threat to withdraw trade preferences to build real pressure on Bangladesh, and change policy-makers’ attitudes towards labor rights.

If Bangladesh’s government begins to inspect factories for violations, and to punish employers who fail to comply with basic labor codes, it would mark a real change. In the long run, more government protection for workers could create space allowing labor activists to speak for themselves — and in the short run,   we can hope it could at least prevent the next disaster.

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