Panel – Factory Safety & Workers’ Rights

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.

On the morning of April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-story building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories, collapsed. When the search and recovery operation concluded on May 13, the final death toll stood at 1,129 workers, making it one of the worst industrial workplace disasters in history.

Media coverage of this event added fuel to a longstanding campaign by local and international unions and NGOs to address what was, well before this latest tragedy, a crisis in building and fire safety in Bangladesh.

As a result of this publicity and activist pressure, over 70 companies, mostly European apparel brands and retailers, have signed a factory safety agreement called the Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh (pdf). These include H&M (largest global buyer from Bangladesh), Carrefour and Tesco (the second and third-largest retailers in the world), and Inditex (world’s largest fashion retailer and owner of the Zara brand). The Accord also has the support of two global union federations, several leading labor rights groups, and the International Labour Organization.

Notably absent from these signatories, however, are the American buyers sourcing apparel from Bangladesh. Although a few U.S. companies signed on —specifically, Philips Van Heusen, American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Sean John Apparel—most of the country’s leading retailers have not. Instead, earlier this month they announced an alternative program, the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative (pdf).

Why did America’s largest retailers, including Wal-Mart, Gap, J.C. Penney, and Macy’s, decline to join a program that enjoys broad support and buy-in from multiple stakeholders, opting instead to propose their own alternative initiative?  I argue that the answer becomes clear if we look more closely at the content of each plan.

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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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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?

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