That ridiculously low price tag for a new shirt is great, right? Everyone enjoys getting a good deal.
But tragedies like the one last week in Savar, Bangladesh, show that someone often ends up paying a steep price for that kind of bargain. In this case, it was hundreds of garment workers killed in the collapse of a substandard building housing several clothing factories.
It’s not the first such disaster. Last September, nearly 300 workers died in a fire in Islamabad, Pakistan. And in November, a factory fire killed 112 clothing workers in Tazreen, Bangladesh. Many smaller incidents have upwards of 600 workers over the past decade in Bangladesh, which has an estimated 4,000 clothing factories.
These kinds of Third World operations churn out the fashions we buy from big-name retailers like Walmart, the Gap, JC Penney, Sears, H&M, Disney, Old Navy and others. The factories pay their workers a fraction of what even a minimum-wage American would make – as little as $38 a month.
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The operations are often housed in hazardous structures that would never pass even minimal inspection in the United States. Workers had noticed cracks in the Savar building but were threatened with loss of pay or termination if they didn’t get back to work. And in Tazreen and Islamabad, many workers perished because emergency exits were locked.
The big companies that buy from these factories must bear more responsibility for forcing reforms. They should insist on independent oversight of conditions – that doesn’t rely on often corrupt government inspectors. The companies have rejected that in the past, citing cost. But organizations representing the workers claim that the inspections could be funded for as little as 10 cents per item – a small price to pay for preventing horrific disasters such as those in Savar and Tazreen.
Some retailers have taken positive steps. According to the Associated Press, the Gap has hired its own fire inspector to check factories in Bangladesh that manufacture its apparel. And Walmart requires fire drills and fire-safety training. Earlier this year it announced it would stop doing business with any factory that failed an inspection.
But these disasters show that more must be done. The companies that make billions selling cheaply made clothing must pay more for safe conditions and pressure the Bangladesh government officials to better protect workers.
Americans would be horrified if so many workers in this country died because of substandard conditions. Workers in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan deserve our concern, too.