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Tag Archives: Factory 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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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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