The 2013 inaugural ball. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Obama has been eerily silent on the Rana Plaza disaster, the factory collapse that killed more than 1,110 garment workers last month near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Days later, another fire claimed eight people, and Obama said nothing. This week, two people died in a shoe factory collapse in Cambodia. Not a word. The problems that plague the global fashion industry deeply affect the American people, from an economic and humanitarian standpoint, and this situation calls for presidential leadership.
As of today, many of the largest US clothing retailers, including Walmart, Gap, J.C. Penney and Sears, have yet to sign on to a rigorous fire and safety agreement that would require brands to help fund necessary building improvements in Bangladesh. Walmart, the single largest buyer of clothing from Bangladesh, has in fact refused to sign, deciding instead to monitor its more than 200 Bangladeshi suppliers itself. The suggestion that Walmart is capable of monitoring its own supply chain is particularly appalling given that the retailer is linked to the Tazreen factory fire, which killed 112 Bangladeshi workers last November, and sold jeans from a supplier that operated in Rana Plaza. As I said in last week’s post, the president needs to force these companies’ hands and pressure them to sign on.
If Obama is unsure of how to act, he might start where former President Bill Clinton left off. In 1996, Clinton established a presidential task force made up of brands, government officials and labor leaders in order to regulate the global apparel industry, following a string of sweatshop scandals. That year, a human rights group revealed that Walmart’s Kathie Lee Gifford brand was being made by children in Honduras, and public outcry built until Clinton joined forces with brands and labor leaders to forge a solution. Aside from improving factories themselves, the task force’s goal was to give American consumers a way to track the conditions under which their clothing was made.
Clinton’s White House Apparel Industry Partnership spent two years establishing a baseline standard for working conditions in garment factories (it set weekly working hours at sixty, for example; and banned child labor). The Fair Labor Association, an auditing group, was set up to inspect progress in factories and make the results of its inspections public.