In June, I wrote about the aftermath of the April 24 Rana Plaza complex collapse in Bangladesh in which 1,132 people died and another 2,500 were injured. Rana Plaza, you may remember, housed at least five garment manufacturers that produced cheap goods for some of the world’s major retailers. I took Walmart and The Gap to task for not agreeing to join other apparel companies in signing on to a plan to help pay for fire safety and building improvements. As I write this, they still haven’t.
Bjorn Claeson, senior policy advisor for the International Labor Rights Forum, told the New York-based Business Insider that these companies have little obligation to do much of anything.
“[Brands] have codes of conduct for suppliers they audit, which includes basic safety standards. The problem is that brands are not willing to make anything else but voluntary, non-binding commitments to work rights, and health and safety standards. They are under no obligation to fix the problems, to make the factories safe or to tell workers of the dangers they face.”
There are exceptions. H&M, the largest purchaser of Bangladeshi-made garments, did agree to a legally binding factory safety accord that requires a financial commitment from retailers. Good for them. It’s a store worth visiting. Inditex, the Spanish multinational clothing company (Zara is among its hundreds of brands), also signed on to the accords. Earlier in the year, the company additionally cut ties with two Bangladeshi subcontractors after a factory fire killed seven people.
There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around. Who built the factory on a swamp? Who allowed three additional (illegal) stories to be added to the building? Who signed off on it? Where’s the government? A 22-year-old survivor, who lost her left leg and right foot in the disaster (while her mother, grandmother and two cousins died in the collapse), told NPR that there were huge cracks in the building and that workers didn’t want to enter. “The manager told us, unless you go in, you won’t get paid and you’ll lose your job. So we entered, but I vowed then that I would collect that month’s salary and quit.”
The average salary for a garment worker in Bangladesh is $37 a month. “We are poor. We work to live,” the young woman told NPR.
The government? Right. In August, several hundred injured workers and families of the deceased staged a protest in front of the Rana site. Police clubbed them with batons. The government did promise injured workers and family members of the deceased $1,200 in cash, $19,236 in savings certificates and $1,200 lump sum life insurance benefits. None of the 4,000 families affected have received the full amounts, and only 350 or so have received between $1,200 and $2,500 from the prime minister’s relief fund.
That may seem like a lot for someone earning $37 a month, but in my June Executive Memo, I asked, “How high a price do we pay for ‘cheap’ clothes?” I’m still asking that. I’m also asking, “How much is a human life worth?”
On a much more pleasant note, please welcome our new associate editor, Carrie Mantey. Many of you will get to work with her as she digs into her role as gatekeeper of our website, keeping it filled with the latest news, as well as writing, editing and handling the production end of our print issue. You can contact her at email@example.com.