The issue: Are American consumers and companies doing enough to prevent tragedies such as the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh?
The garment factory complex collapse in Bangladesh on April 24 resulted in the death of 1,130 workers. This being the deadliest disaster in the global garment industry, it drew worldwide attention. In reality, similar tragedies on a smaller scale occur frequently. Since 2005, more than 1,800 workers have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh.
U.S. firms are among the leading garment importers from Bangladesh.
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American consumers must speak up and let U.S. retailers know that we care about working conditions, labor rights and worker pay in countries like Bangladesh. Visit the National Consumer League’s Facebook page and sign a pledge stating that you are willing to spend an extra 10 cents to save workers’ lives. Based on an analysis by Workers Rights Consortium, it would cost about 10 cents more per garment to prevent disasters like the one on April 24. Pressure the companies in online petitions and other forums.
The tragedy has brought calls from well-meaning people to boycott the importers from Bangladesh. That would be unlikely to reform the industry. Rather, it would have unintended consequences of harming the very workers intended to help. Eighty five percent of garment workers are women. Often they are the only economic source for supporting their families.
Companies based in developing countries keep manufacturing costs down by lax safety conditions, 12- to14-hour shifts, and by using substandard building materials. Labor unions are almost nonexistent. The workers who have tried to organize unions have been harassed or terminated. Last year, a labor organizer was tortured and murdered; the case remains unsolved. Bangladesh has become the world’s second largest exporter of clothing by keeping production costs low through such practices. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh ranks last in wages for factory workers.
Pope Francis said he was shocked to learn that the typical monthly pay for a garment worker in Bangladesh is around $38.
“This is called slave labor,” he stated. Some factory owners claim they cannot pay higher wages because of the low prices paid by Western brands. MBI, a major manufacturer , claims that it makes a particular brand of polo shirt for which it is paid $15. The retailer sells it in the Western markets for $150.
Under enormous pressure to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories, most of the world’s largest apparel companies agreed last month to a major accord to help pay for fire safety and building improvements, except American companies. With the sole exception of PVH, all American retail giants like Wal-Mart and Gap have opposed the plan.
Write to urge the CEOs of American corporate giants to endorse the plan, accepted by the European and Japanese companies, to fulfill their corporate social responsibility; write to legislators expressing your concerns on this matter; use social media to educate and inform others, encouraging them to let the U.S. multinationals know your feelings on the matter.
Last, but not least, use socially responsible investing strategy by combining both financial returns and ethical considerations.
Zaf Iqbal is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. He volunteers with local nonprofits including Habitat for Humanity, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and the Children’s Resource Network. He is past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club.