IDEALLY, THE proliferation of clothing factories in low-cost Bangladesh should benefit not just global consumers who want cheap clothes, but also Bangladeshis seeking better pay and conditions than they can get in rural villages. This can only happen if the country’s government pushes factory owners keep workers safe. After a factory collapse earlier this year killed more than 1,100, the Obama administration announced it would suspend Bangladesh’s duty-free trade privileges and outlined steps — from building inspections to an end to union suppression — that the country must take to get them back. While the pressure from the US government is appropriate, Bangladesh’s leaders are more likely to listen if American retailers wield their clout as well.
Despite being in the global spotlight, many of Bangladesh’s 5,000 garment factories remain dangerous for workers. So far, European retailers have led the way in assuming new responsibility to invest in worker safety and hold factory managers accountable. Retailers H&M and Zara and brands Benetton, Helly Hansen, and Puma are among 70 companies that recently finalized a legally-binding plan to inspect all the factories making their products within nine months and contribute funds for needed renovations.
Only a handful of major American brands are part of that pact, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Sean John, and Abercrombie & Fitch. The biggest US stores have refused to sign the accord out of fears of becoming legally liable for factory conditions. Instead, the likes of Walmart, Gap, Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s, and J.C. Penney have announced a commitment of $42 million for worker safety and inspections over the next five years and more than $100 million in renovation loans to Bangladeshi factory owners. But that plan has no binding commitments, leaving labor-rights groups concerned American retailers will walk away from it when the media spotlight dims. Doing so would be a mistake, because major US retailers should be concerned with the treatment of the workers who make their clothes.