Last week, we wrote about what you can do to improve the standards of garment production in Bangladesh and other low-wage economies. Today, Women’s Wear Daily published a piece by Congressman George Miller of California, the senior Democratic member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, on how changes in U.S. policy can improve conditions abroad.
Miller suggests that it is the responsibility of brands and retailers to ensure that their goods are made within safe and fair labor practices, as it is their production demands—their willingness to go wherever is fastest and cheapest—that has created the competitive lowering of standards between factories:
The reason factory managers keep their workers in unsafe buildings on the verge of going up in flames or collapsing, is fear. Fear that the Western brands and retailers will take their orders elsewhere because of a missed day of production, late delivery or a minuscule increase in production costs.
“It does not have to be this way,” claims Miller. He says the answer is not in brand-led “ethical sourcing” programs, which aren’t credible, transparent, or working. Instead, Miller is advocating for brands and retailers to join together and sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, a petition developed by nongovernmental organizations to prevent these types of disasters from occurring. The agreement includes, “detailed public reporting of fire and building audits conducted by independent safety experts, a requirement for timely repairs and a requirement for brands to terminate a contract if a factory defies their obligations to keep workers safe,” as well as labor protections such as a worker’s right to refuse unsafe work without retribution and union access to factories.
According to Time, this union-proposed plan has previously been rejected by all but two major corporations for being “too expensive” (PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, and German retailer Tchibo were willing to sign up). Miller, however, claims that, “experts believe that this agreement will only cost ten cents a garment over five years to make needed safety upgrades at these factories.”
Whether it’s ten cents or ten times that, I’m with Miller when he says, it’s our “moral imperative” to address these issues. Leaving Bangladesh for another low-wage economy, as some brands are doing, will not solve the problem, it will just shift it elsewhere. We need to focus on making it better where it’s worst, and not going and making it worse where it’s now better.
Need more numbers to convince you? The most recent Bangladesh tragedy, an eight-story building collapse, killed over 650 people, injured over 1000, and many are still unaccounted for, missing among the rubble. Presently, four million Bangladeshis work in 5000 factories, providing clothing to American and European companies, “while earning among the lowest minimum wages in the world — about $37 a month.” That’s less than your average sweater from H&M, one of the brands Congressman George Miller suggested should join the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.