This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The world was shocked last April when over 1,100 workers were killed in a building collapse in a Bangladesh garment factory. Warnings had been issued the day before about cracks in the walls of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, but the workers were forced to enter the building on the morning of the collapse anyway. Illegal floors had been added to the structure, and the permitting process that had somehow allowed the modifications was redolent of shady political influence. Even now, over eight months later, the families of survivors and the hundreds of wounded workers have yet to receive full and just compensation for their losses.
The Rana Plaza collapse obliterated all previous records for deadly garment industry disasters, including New York’s Triangle Factory blaze in 1911, which claimed 146 lives; the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh in November 2012, which killed 112 workers; and the Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan from September 2012, which killed 298 workers.
For most readers in Western world, this was disaster on a scale previously unimaginable. But close observers of the world’s rag trade were not surprised.
Bangladesh’s garment industry has a gruesome history of major fires and building collapses going back over twenty years. A report by the International Labor Rights Forum (to which I contributed numerical analysis) uncovered over 1,000 deaths from factory fires and collapses in Bangladesh from 1990 to 2012. And fires have continued to take the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers even since the Rana Plaza collapse.
Cutthroat global competition—and the attendant race to the bottom in labor standards—is at the root of the callousness with which factory owners treat workers. And lucrative contracts with Western importers are financing the abuse. Even as Bangladesh’s industry became notably perilous, these importers made the country the second-largest exporter of garments in the world. Data I have collected over the last decade shows why: the average price for imported garments (which is most of the clothing Americans wear) is going down, and Bangladesh is the lowest price source in the world.
It’s no surprise to find giant North American retailers Walmart and GAP at the head of the list of importers from Bangladesh. Similarly, it’s no shock that the two companies rejected the pioneering Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, an agreement among labor unions, NGOs and corporations to maintain minimum safety standards in Bangladeshi factories. That well over 100 firms—but just six North American companies—did sign the accord suggests the crocodile tears of the big US importers are less than sincere. Expressing concern for “the families of the victims of tragedy” in April 2013, Walmart, instead outlined a plan to go it alone without worker input.