This guest column by Robert J. Ross originally appeared on Public Spend Forum. Ross is a professor of sociology at Clark University, author of the book Slaves to Fashion, and vice president of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. For more on this topic, see last week’s perspective from David Wyld.
The world was shocked in April of 2013 when 1,132 workers were killed in a building collapse in a Bangladesh garment factory. Warnings had been issued about cracks in the walls of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, on the day before, but the workers were forced to enter the building on the morning of the collapse. Illegal floors had been added to the structure and the permitting process it had received was redolent of shady political influence. Even now, eight months later, the families of survivors and the hundreds of wounded workers have yet to receive full and just compensation for their losses. For most readers in Western world, this was disaster on a scale previously unimaginable, but close observers of the world’s rag trade were not surprised.
Bangladesh has had a gruesome history of major fires and building collapses in the garment industry, going back 20 years and more. Work done by the International Labor Rights Forum (to which I contributed numerical analysis) shows that there were more than 1,000 deaths from factory fires and collapses in Bangladesh from 1990-2012; and after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, fire continued to take the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers. Until Rana Plaza, the two greatest garment industry fire tolls were New York’s Triangle Factory blaze in 1911, which claimed 146 lives, and the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh in November 2012 which killed 112 workers.
Cutthroat global competition—the race to the bottom in labor standards—is at the base of the callousness with which factory owners treat workers, and retailers and major brands treat their contractors. Even as Bangladesh’s industry became notably perilous, the Western importers made that country the second largest volume exporter of garments. Data I have collected over the last decade show why: The average price for imported garments (which is most of the clothing Americans wear) is going down, and Bangladesh is the lowest price source in the world.
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