In the June 4 general session at AIHce 2014 in San Antonio this week, Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C., painted a grim picture of unsafe working conditions in the global apparel industry.
“The question we are confronted with is: How is it possible with all of our knowledge that workers are dying en masse more than a century after Triangle Shirtwaist?” Nova asked.
In his presentation, Nova described the economic, political and technical dynamics behind the workplace challenges, along with potential solutions and promising new models for worker protection.
Nova offered insight into the hazardous working conditions in the garment manufacturing industry, particularly in Bangladesh, where economic and political pressures have exacerbated longstanding safety problems to a greater extent than in other countries.
Three of the four worst workplace tragedies in this particular industry have occurred during the last two years, Nova noted. Two of these disasters, the Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013, which resulted in more than 1,100 fatalities, and the Tazreen factory fire in December 2012, which killed 100 workers, occurred in Bangladesh. (Nova wrote an article for EHS Today’s special focus on workplace safety in the global supply chain in the October 2013 issue. Click here to read “Bangladesh: The Catastrophic Failure of the Apparel Industry's Factory-Inspection Regimes and the Birth of a New Model.”)
In his presentation, Nova described how the underlying the worker safety problem in global apparel factories are the economic conditions that have led to ruthless competition. The majority of garment manufacturing is done by workers in low-wage countries.
Factories mostly are contract suppliers who have short-term relationships with global apparel brands like Wal-Mart and Gap. A typical contract lasts until a specific order is fulfilled, and factories have no guarantees that they will receive a new contract. Therefore, factory owners have little leverage to compete for contracts other than lowering their employees' wages; apparel workers in Bangladesh make the U.S. equivalent of 31 cents an hour.
“It is the rock-bottom cheapest place in the world to make a shirt or a pair of jeans,” said Nova.
An absence of worker empowerment and education, combined with an almost total lack of enforcement of building and safety codes, has created a very dangerous work environment for thousands of garment workers, according to Nova. Inspectors have examined some 500 factories that are part of the voluntary Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, ordering 16 of them closed until the buildings could be made safe for occupancy.