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December 10, 2012

In Our Opinion: Fire shows actual cost of cheap imports

The Daily Star

---- — The tragedy of the Nov. 24 fire that killed 112 trapped workers at a garment factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh, was compounded this week by news that the factory’s hazards were acknowledged, but ignored, more than a year before the incident.

The factory’s owner, Delowar Hossain, admitted last week that his Tazreen Fashions Ltd. building had failed safety inspections and should have been shut down June 30. However, as one Bangladeshi official told The New York Times, the country’s regulators have little hope of enforcing the law on its powerful garment industry.

“I must say we have our weaknesses. We could not do that,” said the inspector, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. “Not only Tazreen. There are hundreds more buildings. That’s the truth.”

The factory made products for a variety of global retailers, so it would be unfair to single out Walmart for being the largest. But the company has deservedly come under fire for its shameless disavowal of responsibility offered immediately after the fire, saying in a written statement: “The Tazreen factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Walmart. A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies.”

This statement was contradicted days later by a Bloomberg News report citing minutes of a 2011 meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where representatives for several retailers met to come up with a plan for improving safety standards throughout the country. Some of the companies tried to reach consensus on an enforceable code that would require safety improvements at factories nationwide — but the idea was shot down by Walmart sourcing director Sridevi Kalavako.

“We are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken to some factories,” Kalavako said. “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”

But for those hoping that some international body will hold Walmart, the other retailers or even the factory owner responsible, don’t hold your breath. While multilateral free trade agreements have done an effective job of providing U.S. consumers with cheap imported products, they’ve been woefully short on ensuring that the suppliers of such goods treat their workers fairly.

This raises a larger point about who has the power to force such companies out of the market. Walmart isn’t the only one guilty of a “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” attitude regarding overseas laborers; we, the consumers, are all too often guilty of putting low prices before everything else.

Keep this in mind while shopping this holiday season. Voting with one’s wallet might be the only way to guarantee that unscrupulous global retailers are held accountable.