WHEN A factory building collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing more than 1,100 garment workers, the aftershocks rippled through the retail world in the United States and Europe. Retailers worried that Western consumers would rebel. Working on thin margins to begin with, garment manufacturers in Bangladesh feared a “doomsday scenario” of mass closures that would leave workers unemployed.
This week, a consortium of 189 retailers, led by such European firms as H&M, Carrefour, Marks and Spencer, and Primark, released a comprehensive report on the working conditions in the factories that sew their clothing. The consortium, called the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, issued a report documenting the results of inspections of 1,106 garment factories and found a mixed picture: There were some signs of improvement, along with a host of unresolved issues affecting worker safety. The report recommended shutting down 17 Bangladeshi factories at least temporarily. The consortium is working intensely with factory owners, brands, and labor colleagues to ensure that the safety findings are corrected through more than 400 agreements between factories and accord members.
The disaster also prompted top American retailers and brands to conduct their own inspections. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety says it has inspected all 587 factories that produce merchandise for its members, which include Walmart, Target, Gap, and Macy’s. That report found 10 factories that needed to be shut down completely or temporarily closed for repairs, but it also found that employee safety training was working. The alliance said that in cases of temporary or complete closures, it would pay 50 percent of worker wages for up to four months.
In a globalized economy, American and European consumers are increasingly aware that many of the brands they wear rely on factories in Bangladesh where wages are low and conditions are onerous. This mission of repair and retraining should not be an isolated effort, but part of a renewed focus on worker safety.