On Asian sweatshops Americans share blame

Another apparel factory has collapsed in a poor Asian country, killing three workers, and I fear I’m partly to blame.

The evidence of my complicity sits idle on the landing, next to a tennis racquet.

Asics shoes. My adored new pair, so light, makes it so easy to move around the tennis court. Just last night, I urged another player to try a pair.

It’s unclear at this writing whether my particular make of Asics shoe (Gel-Solution Speed) was manufactured at the Cambodian plant where a ceiling collapsed and three workers died. But Asics were definitely manufactured at the Taiwanese-owned factory.

Workers said pieces of concrete fell on their heads before the ceiling caved. Reportedly, dense, heavy materials had been stored on recently constructed mezzanine floors. An assistant manager told the Wall Street Journal that the floors shook when materials were loaded, and she feared walking under the mezzanine.

This tragedy pales in comparison to the more than 1,120 deaths from April’s collapse at a Bangladesh clothing factory, yet it won’t likely be the last incident where workers die.

Asics quickly offered the obligatory “deepest sympathies” to the deceased workers families. Yeah, me too, as empty as that feels. Now, what?

Labor protections for foreign workers who supply the U.S. with goods will be among the greatest human rights struggles of this generation. And it’s not an easy problem to address. In the case of many brands — my $100-plus court shoes included — the problem is not simply a matter of consumers desiring cheap bargains.

The kneejerk reaction of many consumers who are horrified at worker abuses is to apply economic pressures such as boycotts. But these have pitfalls. If the net effect is that large brands void contracts with certain suppliers, rather than working with them to improve conditions, such high-minded activism just results in yanking jobs from people a hemisphere away — people who subsist on the wages these jobs provide.

The same day as the Cambodian ceiling crashed, news was spreading of the first substantial corporate responses to the deaths at Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza. A new agreement between two dozen retailers promised at least $60 million over the next five years to monitor the conditions in Bangladeshi factories. More important, the companies also agreed to fund improvements at the factories.

Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch were reportedly the only U.S. brands involved in the agreement, which was mostly among European retailers.

Other U.S. companies declined to sign the agreement devised by labor groups, citing concerns about liability, lack of enforcement and checks to ensure the money would be well spent.

Wal-Mart declined to take part. Instead, the company says it will inspect 100 percent of the Bangladeshi factories it uses and will publically report its safety findings. At least this offers the chance for more scrutiny and pressure for places with problems.

Here’s the catch: Wal-Mart will not help pay for improvements. The company said it agrees with much of the agreement it refused to sign, but in a statement it said many of the issues are more “appropriately left to retailers, suppliers and government, and are unnecessary to achieve fire and safety goals.”

How perfect is that? Wal-Mart apparently wants to be a part of pointing out what is wrong at its overseas factories, but it doesn’t want to help fund the solutions. This from a company that is notorious for squeezing its suppliers over prices and delivery times.

American consumers and companies are part of the problem, and we have to be a greater part of the solutions. Our consumer economy has evolved into a system of elongated chains of manufacturers and suppliers that have little incentive to perform better for the workers at the bottom and every incentive to perform better for shareholders and owners.

Consumers need to keep pressing these companies to follow through on their ethical commitments and codes of conduct. We need to make it clear that responsibility for poor working conditions and safety lapses rests with them, not just with third parties overseas.

U.S. companies are savvy enough to figure out how to build profitable businesses by sourcing product from all over the world. Surely they can be equally adept at finding solutions to conditions that threaten the safety, the very lives, of workers.

©2013 The Kansas City Star

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