Tragedy generally is not the first thing that comes to mind each day when we dress ourselves. After rolling out of bed and showering, we reach into our drawers, pull out socks, underwear, a shirt and perhaps some blue jeans. Most likely, when we bought the clothes, our purchasing decisions were based on fashion or economy – the thought may never even have crossed our minds that an act as uninspiring as clothes shopping could have global ramifications.
Last week’s catastrophic building collapse in Savar, on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka, serves as a doleful reminder of how deadly business-as-usual can be. As of yesterday, some 336 people have died since an eight-story building housing thousands of sweatshop workers collapsed. [Ed note: the count is now over 1100.] Many of these sweatshops supplied clothing to Western retail companies like Primark, Walmart, Libra and Matalan.
One company operating out of the ill-fated building was EtherTex, which says it provides clothing to Walmart. The sweatshop employed 530 people, mostly women, and used only four production units to make 960,000 articles of clothing each year. This means each worker made 1,811 pieces a year. To meet this harrowing demand, the women worked thirteen-hour days, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., six or seven days a week.
We can gain further insight into the horrible conditions of the sweatshops by studying the Safety Equipment list for New Wave Ltd, which occupied the building’s sixth and seventh floors and sold clothing to European discount retailers Primark and Matalan (hat tip to Brian Merchant at Motherboard). The list includes several fire response items such as smoke detectors, fire buckets and gloves, as well as helmets and several stretchers. Keep in mind, the factory produced clothing, not ammunition.
Sadly, this latest disaster is no outlier – before the collapse, at least 700 people had been killed since 2005 in Bangladesh’s garment industry, according to Washington-based advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum. In November of last year, clothing intended for Walmart and Sears was discovered in the ruins of a factory that caught fire, killing 112 people. Both companies claimed suppliers used the factory without their permission and were thus terminated.
While it seems that every time disaster strikes, Western companies promise to improve supervision of local suppliers, there is a darker reality behind the scenes.
In April 2011, Walmart officials decided at a meeting of retailers that the company would not join an industry agreement to pay Bangladeshi factories a higher price so they could afford safety upgrades. Gap, Inc. also said no.
“We are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken,” Walmart said, according to minutes of the meeting. “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”
Walmart made some $17 billion in revenues last year.
At the end of the day, government legislation and business self-monitoring can only go so far – it is up to consumers to vote with their dollars to determine what kind of world they want to live in. One in which we absorb the deaths of innocents a world away to dress ourselves on the cheap, or which places a higher value on human life and dignity than the bargain bin.
The next time you go shopping, you decide.