Author Archives: Jill Esbenshade

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.

Following the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,129 workers and injured 2,500 more, over 70 companies, mostly Europeans, signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This Accord was rejected by most US companies, who instead announced the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative agreement, led by Wal-Mart and the Gap and signed by 17 companies.

The Wal-Mart/Gap agreement recreates the primary weaknesses of private monitoring, the centerpiece of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the global apparel industry for over a decade.

The consensus among researchers is that CSR monitoring has done little to improve the industry.  Although there is evidence that standard payment of wages and health and safety conditions have improved in some factories, overall we have seen a decline in real wages, a rise in the use of temporary and contract labor, the continuation of millions of dollars in wage theft, and the deaths of workers by violence, fires and building collapse.

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