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By Stephen Lee
U.S. worker safety advocates say the April 24 Bangladesh factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers could provide momentum for movement on their agenda.
“The exposure these incidents get definitely creates space for us as worker safety and health advocates to get people to pay attention to our issues,” said Keith Wrightson, Public Citizen's worker safety and health advocate. “It's rather upsetting that it takes incidents like this to get people's attention. But sadly, this helps. Disasters empower people to seek change.”
The growing intolerance for poor working conditions is aided by the fact that the disaster followed so closely on the heels of a November 2012 Bangladesh garment factory fire that killed 112 workers, said Elizabeth Brennan, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Warehouse Workers United (42 OSHR 1139, 12/20/12).
“The fire at Tazreen Fashions was certainly a shock,” Brennan said. “It started the conversation and made people aware that there might be a solution, and it jump-started a conversation with some of these major retailers, particularly the European brands. So people are in conversations.”
Activists did not point to any specific policy changes that the Bangladesh disaster could spur. Rather, they said, the increased attention to safety issues could be used to fuel the same broad agenda raised during the recent Workers' Memorial Day series of events: higher penalties for regulatory violations, tougher enforcement, and stronger whistleblower protections (43 OSHR 413, 5/2/13).
At the same time, however, Republican lawmakers have not publicly signaled any change in their stance against regulation, suggesting that any momentum generated by the disaster may quickly dissipate.
However more meaningful changes could occur on the factory floor level, Wrightson said.
“When an incident like this happens, you start to notice conditions in your own workplace that maybe you wouldn't have noticed before,” Wrightson said. “If you see this on the news, you might think, 'You know what, there's just this big ugly bucket of flammable material on the shop floor, and maybe we should address that.' You would probably get a positive response from your employer, too, at this point.”
Twenty-four large apparel companies, including H&M and Benetton, recently signed a legally binding agreement to help pay for fire safety and building improvements in Bangladeshi factories.
Brennan said she has never seen businesses respond so strongly to sweatshop conditions.
“There's never been a moment like this,” she said. “There's never been a global conversation about sweatshop conditions in recent times.”
“It's definitely a positive development,” Wrightson said. “It's hard for me to say that I salute them, because they should have been doing this stuff in the first place, but it's promising that these retailers are engaging and ensuring workers' rights.”
However, only one of the signatories--PVH, which owns the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands--is American. Two notable American companies, Gap and Wal-Mart, have refused to sign any contract that is legally binding.
“Wal-Mart needs to stop stonewalling and sign the binding agreement that a dozen other companies have signed,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a May 14 statement. “Wal-Mart's announcement is just an attempt to allow their company to continue a shameful race to the bottom that endangers the lives of factory workers in Bangladesh.”
Wal-Mart said May 14 that it will conduct its own safety inspections, within six months, at each of the 279 Bangladesh factories with which it contracts, and will publicly release the names and inspection information.
“As a result, workers in these facilities can be assured of safer working conditions, and the entire market will be lifted to a new standard,” Wal-Mart said in a press release.
“If we identify issues that cause us to believe that people's lives are in danger, we will take swift action,” said Rajan Kamalanathan, Wal-Mart's vice president of ethical sourcing, in a May 14 statement.
The company also said it had begun inspections under a new, enhanced safety program earlier this year, and would begin posting results of those inspections June 1. Wal-Mart has published a list of Bangladeshi factories with which it no longer does business.
Wrightson, however, scorned Wal-Mart's decision to forge its own path.
“It blows my mind that they cannot act collectively with all the other retailers and enter into these agreements that will ensure fire safety items like sprinklers, extinguishers, fire escapes, possibly signage--things that we absolutely take for granted here in the U.S.,” Wrightson said. “There's an opportunity here to make sure that an entire industry is protected, not just a certain amount of vendors.”
He also said, however, that he hopes Wal-Mart and other American firms do not respond to the mounting pressure by pulling up stakes and leaving Bangladesh altogether, because doing so would not only strip the Asian nation of badly needed jobs, but would also spread dangerous working conditions to another poor country.
In April, Kevin Gardner, a Wal-Mart spokesman, told BNA that an investigation had not shown any links between the company and any of the employers in the Dhaka factory. The company repeated that finding in a May 13 press release.
But the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity said May 15 it had uncovered documents linking a Wal-Mart direct supplier, Fame Jeans, with the factory.
Bangladesh is home to roughly 3.4 million garment workers and 4,200 factories, according to the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. The eight-story factory in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, housed five garment factories. Some 3,000 workers were in the building at the time of the collapse (43 OSHR 421, 5/2/13).
The text of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety is available at http://www.industriall-union.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/2013-05-13_-_accord_on_fire_and_building_safety_in_bangladesh.pdf#overlay-context=.
Wal-Mart's list of unapproved Bangladeshi contractors is available at http://az204679.vo.msecnd.net/media/documents/factory-list-unapproved-bangladesh-5-14-13_130130314749385367.pdf.
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