Hundreds Die in Bangladesh, You Save Money

Some 336 people have died since an eight-story building housing thousands of sweatshop workers collapsed.
Some 336 people have died since an eight-story building housing thousands of sweatshop workers collapsed in Bangladesh.

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.

Mike Hower

Currently based in Washington, D.C, Mike Hower is a new media journalist and strategic communication professional focused on helping to drive the conversation at the intersection of sustainable business and public policy. To learn more about Mike, visit his blog, ClimaTalk.

One response

  1. Thanks for the helpful article! I’m sure we’ll be seeing more in the days to come about this. And what an unfortunate wake up call to all of us.

    We have been listening to the tragic story daily unfold as it is reported on the radio and elsewhere. With over 400 dead at last listen, a building owner arrested and a corrupt yet lucrative garment industry producing low priced clothing we consumers demand, this is an interesting conundrum.

    Big Global Brands who play there, why not take responsibility and do good for the families of the victims by joining together creating a fund with no admission of guilt per se, yet strongly walking the talk of the CSR values you stand behind? We know people will pick through the rubble and the dead looking for labels of clothing and eventually we will know more about the companies contracting for the clothing and the backlash won’t be pretty. Why not put a positive spin on an ugly situation and do as much good as possible? Global brands why not step out of the darkness and into the light? Global brands please stay in Bangladesh and do your best to help write the wrongs. Do not abandon this country and quietly take your business elsewhere.

    And we are all in this together as consumers. We bear part of the responsibility by buying the clothing of the global brands at the low prices we demand. We are part of the cycle. So often we do not really want to know where our affordable goods come from, what the supply chain is like, how sustainable really are our choices etc.

    What’s next? The ball is in all of our courts.

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