Monday, April 29, 2013
Bangladesh factory disaster: How culpable are Western companies?
BRIAN MONTOPOLI CBS NEWS
The horrible collapse of a garment factory building in
has renewed questions over whether Western companies should be held accountable
for lax safety standards in the factories where their products are made. Below,
we get you up to speed on the debate. Bangladesh
. Two days after the collapse, the death toll is now above 300; some workers remain trapped beneath the wreckage, with rescuers working frantically to save them - sometimes cutting off limbs to get people free. While officials say that 2,200 people have been rescued, the Associated Press has reports the "smell of decaying bodies" amid the wails of workers' relatives at the scene, and the death toll is expected to rise. More than 3,000 people worked at the site.
Absolutely. Police ordered the building evacuated the day before the collapse, after workers reported cracks in the structure. But authorities said the building owner assured factory owner required the workers to come to work despite the order.
Al Jazeera that thousands of protesting workers have clashed with police since the collapse. Police firing tear gas and rubber bullets to keep protesters at bay. One deputy police chief said workers are demanding the arrest and execution of the owner of the building - who has reportedly gone into hiding - and those who owned the factories it contained. Some protesters have set fire to factories and smashed vehicles.
Based on calculations by the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group, more than 900 people have died in factory fires in
since 2005. In November,
more than 100 people were in a
fire at a factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney and other
Western companies. Workers said the exit doors to the factory, which had lost
its fire safety certification months earlier, were locked and bolted, prompting
some to leap to their deaths from the burning building. In January, seven
workers at another
factory fire in the country, amid reports that the emergency exit was locked
from the outside. It was just one of dozens of fires since the 2005 tragedy. Bangladesh
Because it's a cheap place to make clothes. The country's minimum wage is roughly $38 per month - as the BBC last year,
China has turned to for
manufacturing as its labor costs have risen. Bangladesh
Garment manufacturing is a crucial component to the country's economy: More than 4,000 garment factories generate 80 percent of
exports, worth about $20 billion per year. The nation is among the biggest
exporter of garments in the world, with most going to the Bangladesh United States and Europe.
Government officials have pledged to improve worker safety, but they are also skittish about taking steps that would increase production costs and potentially result in the industry moving somewhere even cheaper. , there are just 18 inspectors monitoring thousands of factories in the Shaka district, the center of the industry. The group also said that factory owners - a powerful force in Bagladesh, with ties to government officials - are usually given advanced notice before an inspection.
Those factory owners, meanwhile, face pressure not to slow or cease operations when there are safety issues because they face pressure to fill orders from Western retailers by strict deadlines. That pressure has been exacerbated since the start of February by ongoing strikes, protests and violence which, the Financial Times , has effectively shut down transportation routes.
"Working conditions in
poor, as many plants operate on an illegal basis without having a license and
clearance from the fire department," the European Union in calling
for improved working conditions in February. "Western retailers already
criticized the conditions of the Bangladeshi garment plants for not complying
with safety rules, but the major Western brands still place orders." Bangladesh
Not much, at least as far as workers' advocates are concerned. After the January fire, the country ordered that all its factories be inspected and insisted that the owners stop locking exit doors. But the tragedies have not prompted major reforms by the Bangladeshi government.
Frustrated by a lack of action by the government, worker advocates have pressured the companies importing the garments to take steps to make workers safer. One proposal, called , would create a legally binding and rigorous independent inspection and oversight system. It would also allow workers to refuse to work in dangerous conditions. (Efforts to unionize workers in
have largely been met with hostility or worse; .) Inspections would be funded
by as much as $500,000 per year from each company. Bangladesh
But only two companies have signed onto the agreement, short of the four necessary for it to take effect. Wal-Mart, Gap, H&M, JCP, Abercrombie and Kohl's are among the companies that have refused to sign on, instead taking their own steps to address worker safety. (The companies that have signed on are Tchibo, a German retailer, and PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.)
Gap in March that it would spend up to $22 million to improve safety at its factories in
and it has hired its own indipendent fire inspectors in the country. Bill
Chandler, Head of Public Affairs for Gap Inc., told CBSNews.com it "did
not have a business relationship with any of [the] factories in the building
that collapsed this week." Bangladesh
"Nonetheless, Gap Inc. takes our commitment to improving working conditions in Bangladesh seriously," he said, adding: "To see tragedies like this become a thing of the past, it will take a collective effort of all retailers, all stakeholders, the U.S. government and the Bangladeshi government to significantly improve the working conditions in this country."
Wal-Mart said in January that it would cease working with contractors that use unsafe practices, and recently to spend $1.8 million to train factory managers in
about fire safety.
"We are saddened by this tragic event," the company said in a statement
to CBSNews.com. "...We remain committed to promoting stronger safety
measures in factories and that work continues." Bangladesh
Advocates say private audits and other efforts by these companies has done little to improve the situation. "Global companies and consumers profit from cheap labor in
Bangladesh, but do little to demand the most
basic and humane conditions for those who toil on their behalf," Brad Adams,
Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It
is time for companies to say that they will take no clothes from companies that
do not meet minimum standards."
One complicating factor in oversight is the fact that owners often use subcontractors to produce garments. Wal-Mart said that while its "investigation has confirmed Walmart had no authorized production in this facility," it will act if it learns there was production through subcontracting, saying it has a "zero-tolerence policy" for unauthorized subcontracting. The New York Times reported that activists searching the rubble have found tags and documents suggesting that production for Mango and Benetton, among other companies, though those brands are distancing themselves from the disaster. (The maker of Joe Fresh and Irish retailer Primark have admitted to using the facility.)
Advocates hope that the latest tragedy will spur companies to increase their efforts to keep workers safe. There is that the latest tragedy and the ongoing strikes and violence will spur companies to move manufacturing away from
But that could simply shift the fundamental problem elsewhere in what critics a
"race to the bottom" by global brands. Bangladesh
"How many more workers have to die," said Stott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium, "before these corporations are willing to take the steps necessary to put an end to this parade of horror?"
First published in CBSNEWS,
April 26, 2013