The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City more than 100 years ago probably is the worst single workplace tragedy in U.S. history. Workplace safety and health reforms followed the fire and eventually led to the signing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the creation of OSHA and MSHA. Unions gained strength and demanded safer working conditions for members. And now, modern building codes demand certain standards of construction, as well as sprinkler systems, warning systems, appropriate storage of flammable goods, an appropriate number of exits and the ability to access those exits.
But as U.S. corporations shifted the bulk of their manufacturing overseas, how responsible should they have been for contractors that set up shop in countries where production is the only concern? Should U.S. and European companies bear some responsibility for the welfare of their contractors’ employees?
The authors of the articles in this special section say that yes, the multinational companies doing business in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan have a moral responsibility to improve the working conditions and safety of the people who manufacture their clothing and other products. After all, manufacturing in Bangladesh is big business: The ready-made garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh exported goods worth more than $20 billion in the past year; nearly 12 percent more than a year earlier.
The companies themselves – Gap, Walmart, Disney and others – say they are taking steps to improve working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
In September, Gap Inc. released its sixth Social and Environmental Responsibility Report, highlighting what the company says is its “commitment to local communities and efforts to improve social and environmental performance globally.”
The report, which covers fiscal years 2011-2012, details sustainability initiatives companywide and globally, as well as across the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime and Athleta brands.
“Our commitment to social and environmental responsibility remains a cornerstone of how we conduct and grow our business,” said Glenn Murphy, chairman and chief executive officer of Gap Inc. “While as a company we will never stop striving for improvement, our legacy of leadership in this work is extremely meaningful to me and to our employees.”
The company noted, “Recent tragedies in Bangladesh have underscored the imperative to improve working and safety conditions for garment workers. Although Gap Inc. did not have a business relationship with factories in Rana Plaza or with Tazreen, the company remains committed to supporting systemic and sustainable reform of the country’s rapidly growing garment industry.”
In October 2012, Gap launched a Building and Fire Safety Plan for the more than 70 Bangladeshi facilities approved to manufacture Gap Inc. apparel and in July 2013, Gap Inc. became a founding member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. A cornerstone of the alliance is a shared responsibility between the Bangladeshi government, retailers and apparel companies, factory owners, non-governmental organizations, labor and civil society. Member companies commit to inspecting 100 percent of their approved sourcing factories within the first year, under a uniform fire and building safety code.
Walmart has issued Standards for Suppliers, which set forth its fundamental expectations of suppliers and their factories on the treatment of workers and impact on the environment. The standards also provide the framework for audits that measure how well suppliers are meeting those expectations.
“We also recognize the need for heightened attention to the unique safety problem in Bangladesh,” says Walmart on its web site. “We expect firm commitments from our suppliers to meet strict safety standards, to be open to rigorous audits and to put the welfare of employees first.”
In addition to the regular audits that Walmart conducts under its ethical sourcing program, the company recently announced that it will conduct more in-depth inspections in Bangladesh relating to electrical, fire and building safety. These facility audits are conducted by “accredited and internationally recognized auditing firms and are based upon the obligation in its standards to provide workers with a safe and healthy work environment.”
When independent audits have found serious or repeated violations of Walmart standards related to safety issues, social issues, unauthorized subcontracting or other requirements, the company red flags them.
Saying that, “Transparency helps all stakeholders to improve worker standards,” the company publishes a list of factories in Bangladesh that are not permitted to produce product for Walmart.
Fragmentation of Efforts
Nearly three and half million Bangladesh garment workers will receive support to improve working conditions, strengthen labor inspections and upgrade building and fire safety at their workplaces through recently announced efforts of the government of Bangladesh and a range of national and international actors in the ready-made garment sector. The International Labour Organization (ILO), in partnership with the governments of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Canada, has launched a multi-year program that will focus on supporting the Bangladeshi National Action Plan for Fire and Building Safety developed in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse. The plan calls for an assessment of all active export-oriented, RMG factories in Bangladesh to be completed by Dec. 31.
The program will start with a complete fire-safety and structural assessment of all active RMG factories and, where necessary, initiate remedial action. The Bangladeshi government is moving to significantly improve the capacity of its inspection system by equipping and training current and new members of the factory inspectorate and introducing oversight to address integrity and increase transparency. The program also calls for the training of workers, supervisors and managers in the RMG sector to improve their knowledge of workplace safety, including the prevention of violence.
This plan is one of several initiatives focused on the RMG sector in Bangladesh, including the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which was signed by more than 80 leading clothing brands and retailers, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a binding five-year undertaking by North American apparel companies and retailers to improve safety in more than 500 factories.
“The rapid growth in Bangladesh’s garment industry has provided vital jobs to women and men and is helping to pull them and their families out of poverty. However, there is an urgent need for decisive and collaborative action to make decent work a reality. This program will improve conditions of work, especially safety, and help generate sustainable economic growth and investment,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.
Ryder has stressed the importance of bringing the various initiatives together into a “single coherent endeavor,” in order to avoid a “fragmentation of efforts.”
The Netherlands, as the current co-chair of the donor coordination group in Bangladesh, strongly supports the adherence to international labor standards on workplace safety and protection of workers’ rights. This vision is supported by business in the Netherlands and promoted through the firms’ supply chains.
“Never in the history of the garment sector have we seen such an opportunity for improvement of labor conditions,” said Lilianne Ploumen, minister for foreign trade and development cooperation for the Netherlands. “With the signing of this agreement, the Netherlands with the ILO and our fellow donors will empower millions of workers in Bangladesh to live healthy and decent lives.”
As this article was going to press, large-scale worker protests calling for improved building and fire safety, better working conditions and higher minimum wages were ongoing in Bangladesh, resulting in work disruptions in hundreds of factories.