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How to Make Garment Factories Safer

The disaster in Bangladesh didn't have to happen. Here's what needs to happen next.

Getty Images/Munir Uz Zaman

I’ve never been to Bangladesh, but, because of a job I once had that involved inspecting factories, I’ve seen a lot of grim workplaces in various parts of the world, from China to Tunisia. I saw Indian workers in Jordan who hadn’t been paid for months and whose passports had been confiscated by the factory owners.  I saw Chinese workers who worked all day amid overwhelming polyurethane fumes that I could barely stand for even a few minutes. Most factories weren’t nearly so bad, but the world’s got a lot of factories.

So when news came of a collapse of a factory building in Bangladesh that left over 400 workers dead (and counting), I read the stories with interest, dismay, and minimal surprise. I expected that foreign clients would be involved, and they were: The Children’s Place, Primark, Benetton, among many others. I expected those clients to disavow any connection or culpability, and, mostly, they did.

I also read the online comment sections of news stories about the tragedy, and most seemed to fall into one of the following three factions: 1) Those who feel that disasters like the building collapse in Bangladesh are a regrettable but inevitable part of industrial development. 2) Those who deplore the very notion of employing dollar-a-day workers to make our clothes.  3) Those who think it’s Bangladesh’s responsibility, not ours, to make sure that workers are safe.

Here’s what I’d say in response: 1) The early stages of industrial development don’t need to involve mass killings of workers. 2) That people are working for a dollar a day is not, in itself, the main problem. 3) While Bangladesh ought to look out for its workers, we have a responsibility not to be a worse influence.

None of this is about making garment manufacturing a nice line of work, not in the next century, at least. Unless you wear Savile Row tailoring—and maybe even if you do—the clothes on your back are the product of miserable, ill-paid labor. For all our progress in automation, no one has yet figured out how to replace the hunched-over lady who attaches a sleeve to an arm scythe hundreds of times a day for pennies per sleeve.  That’s a lousy job, but it’s not the primary problem.

The primary problem is that lots of workers are being poisoned, enslaved, or killed.

The opening of U.S. markets to foreign sellers can do a lot of good for developing nations. A Bangladeshi entrepreneur can scrape together money for twenty sewing machines and be ready to jump into the market.  The workers won’t have any fun, but a couple of dollars a day can be decent money in Bangladesh, and it’s also building up an industrial sector and bringing money into the country. Good deal.  Or at least a defensible deal.

But not if there’s poisoning, enslaving, or killing. In Bangladesh the workers weren’t poisoned, and they probably weren’t enslaved. But they were killed.  That’s a deal breaker. In many Gulf states (but not only there), foreign workers arrive and have their passports confiscated, preventing them from traveling anywhere without getting arrested. They are effectively enslaved.  And, all over China, in businesses like shoe or toy production, factories often use glues, paints, or polyurethane without providing ventilation.  These workers are being slowly poisoned, and many die young.

This isn’t just bad for the workers directly affected; it’s bad for labor standards everywhere. When the lowest bidder wins out by skimping on basic safety, then law-abiding competitors must shut down. When a U.S. manufacturer loses out to a Chinese one because the Chinese one flouts basic health and safety standards, that’s globalization at its worst. The deadly factories of Bangladesh get business because they’re cheap—really cheap—and they skimp on stuff like building repairs or fire prevention. When the lowest bidder wins, no matter what, it’s expensive for owners when employees die en masse, but not as expensive as keeping them safe.

And who rewards the lowest bidders?  Many of our largest retailers. Wal-Mart, for instance, is a serial offender when it comes to doing business with cheap, unsafe factories.  Just last December, a Bangladeshi factory that had produced apparel for Wal-Mart caught fire and killed 112 people.  

But enough complaining. The big problem is enslaving, poisoning, and killing. Here is what we can do about it: insist on disclosure. Congress should require any business that places orders for more than $100,000 worth of goods from a foreign vendor hire labor monitors to monitor the factories involved and make the results of their findings available to the public online.  That’s an idea proposed by my old boss Paul Glastris at the Washington Monthly, and it’s both ingenious and simple.  Consumers would then be able to see what sorts of factories are receiving their money.

Would Wal-Mart and its allies howl in chagrin?  Of course—because the condition of most factories is deeply embarrassing, and retailers would feel pressure to stop going with the lowest bidders. But don’t be fooled by the screams of pain. Most of these big companies already send inspectors to scope out these factories (inspections are cheap—a couple of thousand bucks, max), precisely to have early warnings about bad factories.  The only difference is that they’d have to reveal what they already know.  

None of this would make factory work pleasant. But it could greatly reduce poisoning, enslaving, and killing.  Given where we are, I’d settle for that.