The final toll of workers killed in the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh is 1,127. It is a staggering tally of loss. By contrast, the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City killed 146. The Triangle fire, where factory managers had locked fire-escape doors, galvanized the Progressive movement in America, leading to new safety codes, labor laws and increased unionization. Such a favorable outcome in Bangladesh is much less likely.
As the Seattle Times’ Amy Martinez reports, officials at Nordstrom are scrutinizing the safety conditions at the three Bangladesh factories where some of its garments are made (none were made at the factory that collapsed). Benetton, H&M, Joe Fresh, Mango, Tesco and Zara are among the companies that are pushing a binding agreement that requires them to help pay for better safety conditions at Bangladeshi apparel factories. Gap, Sears, and J.C. Penney are among others who have yet to sign on. Gap, for example, has said it fears lawsuits from American lawyers. Wal-Mart, the biggest player, is drafting its own plan, but critics worry it won’t be enough to prevent further deaths.
In addition to the lack of a united front by Western retailers, the Bangladesh government is corrupt and deeply captured by the international garment industry. Ready made apparel is the poor country’s largest export. The government did say it would allow garment workers to unionize and raise the minimum wage, but it’s unlikely these reforms will do much good in such an environment.
Many Americans would be surprised to realize how many of the clothes in their closets and drawers come from sweat shops, workers toiling in abysmal conditions — indeed lethal conditions. But this is one of the consequences of the globalization and trade deals of the past quarter century. Not so long ago, much apparel sold in U.S. stores was made in the Carolinas. That industry has been nearly destroyed as hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost and the industry went to the developing world for cheap labor. In most cases, the agreements didn’t set requirements for worker safety and wages, or for environmental protection. The global supply chain is so complex that buyers often don’t even know the country of origin of the products they are buying. And it has changed consumer behavior. Author Elizabeth Cline calls it “fast fashion.”
On NPR’s Fresh Air, she told host Terry Gross, “”I’m 100 percent convinced this is the turning point. There’s just something about the number of the pictures. I feel like it’s too bad of a tragedy for the brands to bounce back this time.” One can hope so, but I’m not so sure. Unless consumers in the West demand better, and are willing to pay for it, not much will change, especially in a poor nation with few institutions that can power reform.
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Today’s Econ Haiku:
There’s no end in sight
For the eurozone troubles