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April 30, 2013

Plenty of blame to go around for Bangladesh horror

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — After last week’s act of  “corporate terrorism” in Bangladesh, the irony is that worker advocates there are asking western consumers not to boycott the retailers or the clothing linked to the poor Asian nation’s garment industry.

They need the factories and the jobs. They just want them safer.

The Rana Plaza complex, an illegally constructed eight-story building that housed five garment factories and about 4,000 workers, collapsed Wednesday. Nearly 400 workers are dead and hundreds more are still missing, presumably buried in the rubble.

The media attention focused on the tragedy near Dhaka pales in comparison to the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon because Bangladesh in half a world away. But is it, given our global economy?

Of course, the answer is no. It is hardly possible anymore in the West, without effort, to find a product, food included, that is guilt-free, from iPhones to underwear. Consumers want products they can afford and the corporations want profits that soar, so manufacturing goes to Asia, where labor is cheap and plentiful.

Bangladesh employs about 3.6 million people in the garment industry, and is the world’s second-largest apparel exporter. Labor activists say the factories that collapsed produced clothing for JCPenney; Cato Fashions; Benetton; Primark, the low-cost British store chain; and other retailers.

But there is plenty of guilt to go around. The owner of the Rana Plaza was arrested Sunday in connection with the building collapse while trying to flee to India. He is facing charges of negligent, illegal construction and forced labor. Can you believe he illegally added three stories to a shoddily constructed building approved for only five?

About 700 workers have died in factory collapses and fires in the small region outside Dhaka in the past decade, including a fire five months ago that killed more than 100. That fire led to pledges to improve safety and working conditions in Bangladesh, but very little has been done.

In 2011, several major western retailers, including Walmart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M, rejected a proposal from a group of Bangladeshi and international unions that would have established independent inspectors to oversee all factories in Bangladesh. 

The group would have had “powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions,” according to The Associated Press. But the proposal “was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly,” AP reported.

In December, shortly after the deadly factory fire, a spokesperson for the Gap — which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains — said the company shot down the proposal because it did not want to face possible lawsuits and pay factories more money to help with safety upgrades.

Many retailers and their suppliers have been moving into Bangladesh because of increasing wages and inflation in China, which for years has been the top producer in the garment industry.

Anna McMullen, a campaigner for Labor Behind the Label, writing for CNN.com, said “hundreds of factories are being thrown up in a short space of time, with limited building regulations, to meet the growing demand from western brands for cheap export clothing. And it is cheap. Wages for Bangladeshi workers are the lowest in Asia, aside from the recently opened Myanmar industry, at $37 a month.”

The reason western retailers want to see themselves as innocent when disaster strikes is that many layers of contractors and subcontractors have formed to create and manage the factories. In fact, many retailers don’t even know without lengthy investigation whether any particular factory is producing their label. 

According to Vijay Prashad, an Asian history professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, the practice of subcontracting allows the major retailers “to deny any culpability for what was done by the actual owners of these factories, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of the cheap products with having their consciences stained with the sweat and blood of the workers.”

However, when a tragedy on the scale of last week’s collapse of several factories occurs, many consumers, if not the retailers, should feel the pain the next time they slip into their Gap jeans or Benetton skirt. But they must realize that unless the nature of today’s global markets changes, a boycott of products only hurts the poor workers who need a job making them.

An immediate strategy for consumers could be to pressure the retailers through lobbying to do more to help make working conditions better, all the way from the corporate offices down to the little factory run by a subcontractor to a subcontractor.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.