November 11, 2016
After the devastating consequences of the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 killing 1,134 people, two organizations emerged for inspecting and auditing safety in workplaces. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created with independent and transparent reports of safety inspections and progress. The Accord’s Corrective Action Plans (CAPS) are detailed factory-level spreadsheets documenting inspection results, the required repairs and renovations, designated deadlines for each identified remediation item, and progress status on each item. The Accord CAPS are available at http://accord.fairfactories.org/ffcweb/Web/ManageSuppliers/InspectionReportsEnglish.aspx. It also in includes a critical voice for labor within the factories on health and safety issues. The other organization, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, established by global retailers including Gap, Target and Walmart, does not make the inspection reports public and lacks the free selection of workers for their representatives in factory health and safety committees. In spite of the Alliance’s lack of transparency, where side-by-side comparison is possible, a new study reports that the Alliance is giving passing grades to factories that have failed to implement critical safety repairs.
In 2013, when Gap, Target, Walmart, and 23 other North American companies refused to join with unions in a legally-binding agreement to improve workplace safety in Bangladesh, they announced their own corporate-controlled alternative. The report “Dangerous Delays on Worker Safety,” which was researched and written by the International Labor Relations Forum, the Worker Rights Consortium, Clean Clothes Campaign, and Maquila Solidarity Network, is the first independent investigation into the Alliance’s track record. It exposes a startling disconnect between the Alliance rating system and the actual conditions in the factories. Of 107 factories examined that are labelled by the Alliance as “On Track,” the report finds that:
These statistics, if accurate, are terrifying, and they have real world consequences. The report’s analysis alleges that there are 120,000 garment workers employed in the 62 factories that produce items for Walmart that do not have fully viable fire exits.
The Guardian has an excellent article on the report found here: Retail group approves Bangladesh factories as safety concerns persist, report finds.
If this is true, critical changes must happen within the Alliance as they have been publicly overstating progress and approving factories despite safety concerns. Right now, 29 companies are members of the Alliance: Ariela and Associates International LLC; Bon Worth; Canadian Tire Corporation, Limited; Carter’s Inc.; The Children’s Place Retail Stores Inc.; Costco Wholesale Corporation; Fruit of the Loom, Inc.; Gap Inc.; Giant Tiger; Hudson’s Bay Company; IFG Corp.; Intradeco Apparel; J.C. Penney Company Inc.; Jordache Enterprises, Inc.; The Just Group; Kate Spade & Company; Kohl’s Department Stores; L. L. Bean Inc.; M. Hidary & Company Inc.; Macy’s; Nine West Holdings, Inc.; Nordstrom Inc.; Public Clothing Company; Sears Holdings Corporation; Target Corporation; VF Corporation; and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; YM Inc.
As consumers, as people of faith, we share the concern with which the report concludes: “The Alliance’s approach to reporting safety progress legitimately raises the question whether the Alliance is prioritizing the protection of its member brands’ reputations over the protection of workers.”
Update: the Honorable Ellen O’Kane Tauscher, independent chair of the Board of The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance), has issued a statement in response to the report found here in the Alliance website: http://www.bangladeshworkersafety.org/en/410-alliance-continues-to-improve-safety-in-bangladesh-garment-industry
October 10, 2016
Pope Francis, who has paid more attention than most to Bangladesh, is in the process of directing Catholics’ and the world’s gaze upon that nation.
Recall that Pope Francis was one world leader who called attention to the disaster at Rana Plaza. Pope Francis, vigilant of religious persecution, also voiced sorrow for the victims of the terrorist attack in Dhaka. Returning from Georgia and Azerbaijan, Pope Francis confirmed that he will visit Bangladesh in 2017. Then, on Sunday, he named Archbishop Patrick D’Rosario, C.S.C. a cardinal. Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country of almost 170 million people, has 350,000 Catholics, or just .2% of the population. It will be the second visit by a Pope to Bangladesh as Saint John Paul II visited in 1986.
The challenges posed in Evangelii Gaudium to go to the peripheries and in Laudato Si’ to care for our common home, many of the great themes of his papacy, are incarnated in Bangladesh. Among issues associated with poverty, the Pope’s visit to Bangladesh in 2017 will likely bring attention to workers’ rights, wages, and workplace safety in garment industry. The church in Bangladesh has done extraordinary work on behalf of the poor, but Pope Francis will bring that great work and the ongoing challenges to the attention of the rest of the world.
August 08, 2016
For more than two decades, more and more Americans have become aware of the exploitation and violence associated with much of the globalized garment industry producing more than 95 percent of our clothes. A series of media exposures, including the 1996 revelation that TV host Kathy Lee Gifford had endorsed a clothing line produced by Honduran children in sweatshop conditions, spurred a growing consciousness of labor abuses in many countries.
These exposures highlighted the persistent use of child labor, the absence of living wages that could sustain a decent livelihood for millions of workers, and the prevalence of unsafe working conditions. The latter issue was thrust dramatically into public awareness by the collapse in April, 2013 of Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh that housed a number of garment companies supplying brands like Children’s Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions, and the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. The collapse of the building, which many workers had warned was unsafe, killed 1,139 workers and injured 2,500 more.
Although many of the major brands made public commitments to rectify such abuses, they continue to shed direct responsibility by contracting with local suppliers and subcontractors in different countries. They can easily move from country to country, supplier to supplier, to keep prices competitive while exerting downward pressure on workers’ wages and working conditions.
This dynamic, too, has gained media attention along with the abuses themselves. TV satirist John Oliver focused on it last year in a segment of his show, “Last Week Tonight,” while filmmaker Andrew Morgan devoted an entire documentary, The True Cost, to exposing the system and its detrimental effects on millions of people. Both Oliver and Morgan unveiled visual evidence of profound inequity, yet exploitation and deprivation persist while fashion industry executives have become some of the wealthiest people on the planet (e.g. Stefan Persson of H&M worth $28 billion; Amancio Ortega of Zara worth $57 billion).
Many consumers who become aware of these problems are left with uncertainty as to a responsible course of action. Some have begun to look to fair trade certification as an answer, seeking out businesses that promise adherence to ethical labor and environmental standards. Yet considering the vast preponderance of garments manufactured by major brands, a number of critics argue that for the 40 million garment workers worldwide, a more comprehensive, sector-wide approach is needed.
One possible beginning step for individuals is a basic one: moving beyond the identity of “ethical consumer” to embrace the broader, more responsive identity of global citizen. The former is still closely identified with the products we choose, the latter with an awareness of the social relations defined by a globalized capitalist economy. As a more encompassing term, citizenship entails a responsibility for continuing self-education no matter what one’s stage of life may be.
From this perspective, it may well be worth one’s while to visit the websites of organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. These umbrella organizations represent broad coalitions of trade unions and human rights organizations, and their response to the issues is political. They engage in advocacy, lobbying, and public education to support garmentworkers’ rights (including freedom of association and union representation) across the national boundaries that transnational corporations so easily traverse. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance makes a crucial distinction between the legal minimum wage in many of the producing countries and a living wage that enables workers to support themselves and their families with dignity. And these organizations offer ways that individuals can help take a stand in solidarity with workers, including (on the Clean Clothes website) a link that provides information on the corporate behavior of specific labels.
It may be objected that with so many American jobs already lost overseas, our focus should stay squarely on retaining and growing jobs here at home. Yet the garment industry is itself a prime example of outsourcing; it wasn’t very long ago that most of the clothes purchased in the U.S. were made by American workers. The same global economics affecting the welfare of workers in Bangladesh or Cambodia affect the welfare of workers here.
More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from Birmingham, Alabama, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” If he had written those words today from Dhaka or Mumbai, Phnom Penh or Jakarta, they’d ring as true now as they ever did.
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Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.