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.”