National Consumers League

Signs of progress improving worker safety in Bangladesh

moniqueBy Monique St. Jarre, Child Labor Policy Intern
Monique St. Jarre, is a child labor policy intern at NCL and the Child Labor Coalition and is a rising junior at Hamilton College pursuing a degree in world politics and economics. Monique is interested in human rights and international development issues. She is on the varsity Hamilton softball team and will be traveling to South Africa for the fall semester.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in late April, the world has responded with outrage and passion. Though it has been compared to the infamous 1911 New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Rana Plaza collapse has a death toll almost eight times greater than the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and is—by far— the worst factory disaster in world history. In response to the tragedy, recent activity in Washington, D.C. has shown public support for improved worker safety, despite the difficulties of bringing it about. The popular, politically-minded cafe Busboys and Poets invited Sonia Mistry and Timothy Ryan from the Solidarity Center, to give a presentation entitled: “After Rana Plaza: Global Perspectives on Workers’ Rights” earlier this summer. The Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO affiliate, works closely with burgeoning labor groups around the world; it also a member of the Child Labor Coalition, which is co-chaired by the National Consumers League (NCL),  Mistry and Ryan’s talk was a part of the  Bread & Roses labor speaker series that strives to make the public more aware of pressing labor issues. Mistry first laid down the facts :  4 million Bangladeshi workers are in the garment industry, which accrues $19 billion a year in revenue. Since November, Mistry said, there had been 44 factory fires in Bangladesh, on top of the more than 1,129 victims from the Rana collapse.  The building was clearly unsafe, and the owner sent the workers back into the building because he feared lost profits, said Mistry. Doors were locked, fire escapes were lacking, and fire and safety equipment was missing. What is the main lesson to draw from this disaster? It was preventable, and should never be allowed to happen again, said Mistry and Ryan, who argued that a key to avoiding such tragedies is establishing vibrant labor unions which are often able to work to mitigate unsafe factory conditions. Mistry and Ryan also urged global clothing companies to sign on to the comprehensive Bangladesh factory safety accord that has been embraced by many European companies, while being eschewed by most American retailers. In early June, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing to discuss what governments and companies might do to prevent more Rana disasters. Despite widespread public concern about factory safety reform, American retailers seemedless committed to making the significant safety changes embraced by European retailers. Arguments for the companies’ foot-draggingwere built on issues of legality and cost:It would be too risky and too expensive to make Bangladesh’s factories safe,and that American consumers did not want bear those costs in higher prices for clothes, suggested the retailers But are the companies right? Do Consumers care enough about factory safety to demand that factories be made safe? At the NCL, we launched the 10 cents pledge campaign to help answer those questions.  Based on financial data provided by the Workers Rights Consortium, NCL calculated that a mere 10 cents on every garment piece would generate enough money—the over $3 billion needed—to make Bangladeshi factories safe over a five-year period. Our campaign has brought media attention to factory safety and raised consumer awareness about the real costs of safety improvements, which are more viable than the companies want us to believe. Since the Ryan-Mistry presentation and the congressional hearing, a concerned Obama administration has jumped into the issue and removed GSP trade benefit status for Bangladesh. The AFL-CIO, who filed this petition in 2007, applauded this announcement while the Bangladesh government fully protested its economic implications.  Many American lawmakers and advocacy groups, however, are confident that it will serve as a strong symbol of American commitment to the idea that workers should be protected. Once the Bangladesh government takes the necessary actions and safety improvements are visible, trade benefit status will be reconsidered. Unfortunately, after saying “no” the European-retailer plan, American companies led by Walmart and the Gap have signed on to their own factory safety plan, labeled a “sham” by many groups, including the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. This “Worker Safety Initiative” has little legal liability and seemingly no safeguards against lack of payment or commitment by the signatories. It also creates the issue of having different safety rules for different companies who often use the same factory.  American companies need to step up to the plate and sign the better accord widely embraced by European companies. You can sign a petition telling them to do just that by clicking here. It is crucial that consumers continue to be educated about these issues, and express their concerns about worker safety to Congress and the corporate world. Please consider signing NCL’s10cents campaign pledge by clicking here. We must not allow time to fog our memories of this terrible tragedy.