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.More