That trendy jacket treasured for its looks and bargain price bears hidden costs — in lives at risk and lives actually lost. The death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh — 1,127 dead so far — has opened the eyes of consumers who love a good deal and blackened the eyes of some retailers they patronize. Several European apparel companies and the Bangladeshi government are rushing to repair the damage by finally taking steps to make manufacturing in poor countries safer and fairer for workers.
It’s a travesty that it took a disaster of this magnitude to prod giant firms and a government into action. It’s no secret that clothing retailers and other manufacturers have long chased after cheaper labor. Once, there were numerous clothing factories in Hialeah, but no more. The Dominican Republic had a thriving clothing manufacturing base once, too. But retailers found cheaper workers in Mexico and China, and now in Bangladesh, second only to China in clothing manufacturing.
Bangladeshi workers are the lowest paid in the world, at around $37 a month. Their working conditions are often sub-par, with few safety rules or inspections by the government or apparel companies. Workers’ attempts to form unions are thwarted by a government anxious to keep retailers happy.
But the scenes of mourning families and rescue attempts to find trapped workers, many of them young women, have forced apparel companies to institute — and pay for — safety improvements. Bangladesh is the primary manufacturing home for many European clothiers, Wal-Mart and others. On Monday, major European firms signed on to a global plan to improve factory conditions. Wal-Mart unrolled its own safety plans for its Bangladesh contractors.
The government in Bangladesh quickly adopted new safety and inspection standards and eased rules to make it easier for workers to unionize. Labor advocates lauded these efforts and called for other manufacturers of goods overseas to follow suit.
While the factory collapse and death toll have stirred up the debate about outsourcing, Third World sweatshops and corporate greed, many advocates for laborers say that manufacturing in poor countries offers advantages that shouldn’t be downplayed. In Bangladesh, growth of clothing factories has raised the living standards for women, in particular. Even with such low wages, women who might have been stuck in villages and forced to marry at an early age, are instead employed and on the road to independence. Some manufacturers require certain levels of education and training, allowing women who might have been forced to quit school early to complete their education and find jobs.
Workers’ advocates and consumer and religious groups argue that the real culprits are the corporations and complicit governments that tolerate miserable, often dangerous, working conditions and conspire to discourage unions. There should be more international agreements like the safety plan that clothing retailers such as the Swedish mega company H&M and Britain’s Primark joined in response to the most deadly garment factory disaster in history.
If these companies had been proactive, if the Bangladeshi government hadn’t put expediency ahead of safety, some 1,100 people would still be alive. A good deal on a clothing item isn’t worth the death of a single person, ever.