Crowds in Dhaka, Bangladesh, chanted “Hang him!” as the owner of a garment factory complex was led into court Monday. Five days before, his eight-story building collapsed, killing at least 386 people in what is one of the world’s worst industrial disasters ever. Hundreds remain unaccounted for as hope of rescuing survivors dwindles. The landlord, a local politician named Mohammed Sohel Rana, rightfully faces charges of negligence and other misconduct that could put him in prison for seven years. But he’s not the only party that should be held accountable for this tragedy. Western retailers should demand safer working conditions from their suppliers as well.
Police evacuated Rana Plaza, as the complex was known, the day before the collapse because large cracks had appeared in the structure’s side. Managers, however, threatened not to pay monthly salaries — the minimum wage is about $37 a month — if employees refused to return the next day. In a country where 60 percent of people live on less than $1.25 a day, even that paltry wage can offer a much improved standard of living; for that reason, many workers felt they had little choice but to go back.
Wages aside, working conditions in Bangladesh’s rag trade are notoriously brutal and unsafe. The country is now the world’s second-largest apparel supplier, behind only China. Yet many garment factories fall short of Bangladesh’s own building codes. Two years ago, 29 people were killed and 100 injured in a fire at a factory manufacturing clothes for Gap Inc. A fire in November in a textile factory producing goods for Walmart and Sears Holdings Corp. killed 112 people. Managers in that blaze told workers to stay put when fire alarms went off.
The solution, however, is not simply for international buyers to leave Bangladesh, as the Walt Disney Company has announced it plans to do. Rather, they should commit to helping clean up safety practices from within. Major global clothing brands are bound to have more influence over their suppliers than either workers or consumers do.
Disney, at least, deserves credit for recognizing a problem. Sadly, many global companies have been hesitant to take any responsibility for factory workers’ well-being. In 2011, Walmart shareholders voted by a nearly 50-to-1 margin to reject a proposal to require suppliers to report annually on safety at their factories. Walmart’s management strenuously opposed the measure, too, arguing that such reports would lead to higher production costs, lower returns for shareholders, and higher prices for customers.
That stance also allows retailers to assert, as Walmart and others have in the past, that they don’t always know where products are being made or that dangerous conditions exist. Yet in today’s digitized age, companies’ ability to track products up and down their supply chains only improves over time. Other retailers that have faced criticism on worker-safety issues, such as Apple and Nike, now monitor manufacturers closely and invite outside review of safety audits. Labor-rights groups are calling on all global brands — including Walmart, Gap, and H&M — to sign a building and safety agreement for Bangladesh, a binding commitment to require more rigorous inspections and more transparency about the results. Bangladesh’s government also needs to take more responsibility for protecting workers. It’s not a panacea against abuse, but it is a useful step in preventing another Rana Plaza.