Friday, April 26, 2013

Rethinking those cheap tee shirts

If you haven't been following this situation regarding a garment factory in Bangladesh, it's heartbreaking:
AVAR, Bangladesh (AP) — "Save us, brother. I beg you, brother," Mohammad Altab moaned to the rescuers who could not help him. He had been trapped for more than 24 hours, pinned between slabs of concrete in the ruins of the garment factory building where he worked.

"I want to live," he pleaded, his eyes glistening with tears as he spoke of his two young children. "It's so painful here."

Altab should not have been in the building when it collapsed Wednesday, killing at least 238 people.

No one should have.

After seeing deep cracks in the walls of the building on Tuesday, police had ordered it evacuated. But officials at the garment factories operating inside ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working, authorities said.
DHAKA, Bangladesh - As Bangladesh reels from the deaths of hundreds of garment workers in a building collapse, the refusal of global retailers to pay for strict nationwide factory inspections is bringing renewed scrutiny to an industry that has profited from a country notorious for its hazardous workplaces and subsistence-level wages.

After a factory fire killed 112 garment workers in November, clothing brands and retailers continued to reject a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry. Instead, companies expanded a patchwork system of private audits and training that labor groups say improves very little in a country where official inspections are lax and factory owners have close relations with the government.

In the meantime, threats to workers persist. In the five months since last year's deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., there were 41 other "fire incidents" in Bangladesh factories , ranging from a deadly blaze to smaller fires or sparks that caused employees to panic, according to a labor organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO umbrella group of American unions. Combined, the recent incidents killed nine workers and injured more than 660, some with burns and smoke inhalation and others with injuries from stampedes while fleeing.

Wednesday's collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed more than 300 people is the worst disaster to hit Bangladesh's fast-growing and politically powerful garment industry. For those attempting to overhaul conditions for workers who are paid as little as $38 a month, it is a grim reminder that corporate social responsibility programs are failing to deliver on lofty promises.

More than 48 hours after the eight-story building collapsed, some garment workers were still trapped alive Friday, pinned beneath tons of mangled metal and concrete. Rescue crews struggled to save them, knowing they probably had just a few hours left to live, as desperate relatives clashed with police.

What does all this have to do with being able to go into a big-box store and buy cheap tee shirts?  Read on:
Labor groups argue the best way to clean up Bangladesh's garment factories already is outlined in a nine-page safety proposal drawn up by Bangladeshi and international unions.

The plan would ditch government inspections, which are infrequent and easily subverted by corruption, and establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions. The inspections would be funded by contributions from the companies of up to $500,000 per year.

The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world's largest clothing brands and retailers , including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M , but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly.

At the time, Wal-Mart's representative told the meeting it was "not financially feasible ... to make such investments," according to minutes of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press. [...]

Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner did not directly answer questions about the unions' safety plans in replies to questions emailed by The Associated Press. H&M responded to questions with emailed links to corporate social responsibility websites.

In December, however, a spokesperson for the Gap , which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains , said the company turned down the proposal because it did not want to be vulnerable to lawsuits and did not want to pay factories more money to help with safety upgrades.

H&M also did not sign on to the proposal because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be taking on the responsibility, Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues, told AP in December.

Let's recap, shall we?

--More than 300 people died this week in yet another Bangladesh garment factory "incident."   Over a five month time period more than 660 people were killed in similar "incidents."

--Major players in the one-TRILLION-dollar clothing industry do not want to pay up to $500,000 a year for independent factory inspections or face the possibility of legal liability connected to these "incidents."  They are willing to help pay for training materials for employees, though as a person cited in the article pointed out it's pretty hard to train employees as to how to escape an inferno or a building collapse (and that's before we get into the problem of not enough doors and escape routes and frequently-locked doors and gates, etc.).

--The workers who work in these unsafe, dangerous conditions make less than $40 a month.

--Wal-Mart (tm) had profits of 15.7 billion dollars in 2011.  The Gap had profits of over $300 million dollars in 2012, a strong showing compared to previous years.

--The companies are taking the position that it is up to local authorities to improve factory conditions--that's not the job of the mere customers of the factories.  Lest we take that at face value, remember that with rising materials cost and sluggish retail sales those same companies are absolutely dependent on cheap, cheap, cheap labor to keep those profit margins at levels that make investors happy.  If the government of Bangladesh actually enacted a widespread and honest (e.g., not subject to bribery or corruption) rehabilitation of the garment industry, the factories' increases in production costs would be passed on to those global garment customers--and the big guys would most likely take their business elsewhere, to the next third-world location where people are desperate enough to work in rickety tinderboxes for a dime or so an hour making cheery tee shirts in bright colors with cute or sassy sayings on them, because heaven forbid that Americans are going to be told they have to spend a whole dollar or two more per shirt, or investors be grimly informed that profits only increased at an average rate for the year.

You know what I think?  Given the eternal consequences of having to answer to God as to why I was willing to be indifferent to the screams of someone else's husband or father trapped and dying in the rubble or the flames of such a factory so long as I could pick up inexpensive summer tops, I think this: those tee shirts cost way too much after all.


B et G said...

oh this just makes me ill. Is there a list of companies with more ethical practices or efforts to ensure workers' safety? Praying for these people.

eulogos said...

But how long is it since you have seen an IGWU label or a "Made in the USA" label in an item of clothing?

If you buy purses or boots made of fake leather aka "pleather" it is made in factories in China where young women try to balance the increased salaries offered by these factories against the well known increased chance of birth defects in their future offspring.

My real leather boots were made in China also and probably in bad conditions by people paid not very much... but I haven't heard anything like the pleather story about them.

I order from Lands End and LL Bean, but all the labels are from China or somewhere like that. I think Bangladesh is the worst place which produces the cheapest clothes, but there are nasty stories about China and India also.

I am not up to making all my own stuff. And the fabric was probably dyed with chemicals in Bangladesh, anyway.

I don't see a shiningly moral path available to take here.

Susan Peterson