November 27, 2012

No exit, redux

While many of us were planning for Black Friday shopping sprees over Thanksgiving weekend, more than 100 Bangladesh garment workers died in a Tazreen Fashions factory fire because there were insufficient exits for workers to escape. Tragic as the story is, it is not unique. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires. The Bangladesh factory fires are what working life looked like in the U.S. pre-fire codes, pre-fair labor standards, pre-OSHA. Workers went to work unsure if they would return home safely each day. The Bangladesh fire calls to mind the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, a tragic story that resulted in a huge public outcry for change. The fire gave impetus and momentum to workers compensation legislation, child labor laws, fair labor standards, building code and fire regulations, and more.

Even with our worker protections, it takes vigilance to prevent tragedy from repeating itself in the workplace next door. In 1991, a fire in an Imperial Foods poultry processing plant in North Carolina claimed the lives of 25 workers who had been locked in to prevent theft. In 2003, a New York Times investigation revealed that retail giant Wal-mart was locking night shift workers in. In addition to the "locked in worker" issue, OSHA citations for other exit-related safety violations include many familiar household brand names: Home Goods, CVS, Rite Aid, Kohl's, Toys R Us, to name but a few.

Will the Bangladesh fire be a tipping point?
Unsurprisingly, there is public outrage in Bangladesh following this terrible event, just as there was here in 1911. Will it be enough to galvanize reforms in the nation's largest exporting industry? The temptation might be to see this as Bangladesh's problem to solve, but things aren't always quite that simple. According to news reports:

Tazreen Fashions is a subsidiary of the Tuba Group, a major Bangladeshi garment exporter whose clients include Wal-Mart, Carrefour and IKEA, according to its website. Its factories supply garments to the U.S., Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, among other countries. The Tazreen factory opened in 2009 and employed about 1,700 people.

Photos at the scene of the fire show that clothing was being produced for Wal-Mart. The retail giant has issued statements distancing itself from the factory, saying Tazreen was unauthorized to do work for Wal-Mart, and blaming a supplier for subcontracting work.

Complex webs of subcontractors - both domestically and internationally - are an increasingly convenient way for large multinational companies to defect responsibility, but should we accept that Wal-Mart and other mega-buyers can't better control their supply chain? Surely, American companies could join forces in leveraging their buying power to demand that safety and basic human rights are enforced if they had the will to do so. U.S. consumers and policy makers need to demand more accountability from the organizations that we buy our clothes, our phones, and our electronics from.

The following video is distressing and gruesome, but we think it deserves airing. It's the human toll that's paid for getting shirts for a few cents less.


| 3 Comments

3 Comments

Julie:

Do you really think U.S. interference in the internal laws of foreign countries will be well received? Do you think the wealthy business owners in those countries will take kindly to us interfering in how they make money, elect their politicians and make their own laws?

If several of the major US buyers band together to do what you suggest they are going to run afoul of US antitrust laws as well.

I agree that such occurrences are tragedies and are avoidable. If laws and regulations are in place and are enforced. But as you point out they are not always enforced even in this country.

I found a local supermarket (National Chain) in Dallas who had locked two of the three front exits to prevent thefts. There were three exits to meet fire code to get original occupancy. This was year after another supermarket death in a fire here in Dallas with a locked door. Management did not care they were violating the law. The Fire Marshall did not care to do anything about it either. The only thing I could do was to quit shopping there, and I did. So if the authorities in this country don't care in the face of a current occurrence just think what it will take for the Wal-Mart's of the world to change the laws and then enforce them in a foreign country with a business they have no relationship with.

Sorry Bangladesh is going to have to do their job as a sovereign nation. It is their country, their citizens, their laws and terribly, their grief.

Regards,

Charles

Hi Charles, thanks for the comment. It will probably not surprise you to learn that I disagree!

I'm not talking about US dictating terms to a foreign government (although I support our using diplomatic influence in any way we can to further basic human rights) - I am talking about US mega-retailers like Wal-Mart using their considerable buying clout to set terms with suppliers. They already do this when it comes to price, materials, schedules, and any number of variables - Wal-mart in particular is known to be a very hard and demanding task master. Suppliers jump through hoops to meet their terms because of the enormity of the business opportunity. I am suggesting that one of those hoops be worker safety.

Whether it's here in the US or on foreign turf, worker safety is (or should be) a non-negotiable priority. Lynch Ryan has learned that doing the right thing by employees is not only the right thing from a moral perspective, but it is also usually the most cost efficient way to do business. True, some bad employers don't adhere to regulations even when they exist (maybe OSHA needs a better budget for inspectors?) but let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good - worker deaths have dropped from 14,000 per year in 1970, the year OSHA started, to about 4340 last year. If our corporate citizens did it here, they can surely show leadership with their supply partners abroad.

Bangladesh may have to solve the problem, but don't underestimate our buying clout.

Cheers - have a good holiday season!

That's sad. I sure do hope that Wal Mart helps families of victims in this tragedy since clothing were being made for them. I really don't understand on how most companies and employers not provide safety and health for their workers. The very source of their income. This is just sad.

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This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on November 27, 2012 11:50 AM.

Aging Workers, Limited English, Limited Skills was the previous entry in this blog.

News roundup: Risk Roundup, Wal-Mart Class Action, WCRI Report, Massey Probe Widens & more is the next entry in this blog.

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