Safer Working Conditions Worth a few More Bucks for Your Sweater

Sep 15, 2013 Issues: Trade

During the three days I spent in Bangladesh in late August, workers there described to me the terror and despair they confronted during and since the building collapse in April and the garment factory fire several months earlier — events that together killed more than 1,200 workers. They had jumped from buildings and watched family members die in the rubble next to them.

Bangladesh may be half a world away, but the clothes its workers make are sold almost everywhere we shop. Globalization has propelled Bangladeshi workers into the international marketplace in ways that are both important for them and their country’s economic development. But we cannot simply stand by and let workers sacrifice their lives to make our clothes.

While important steps have been taken since April by an unprecedented collaboration of governments, retailers and organizations to begin to address building and fire safety, the much larger challenge remains the improvement of worker rights, without which Bangladesh citizens will continue to face the same powerlessness confronted by the Rana Plaza factory workers who had seen the cracks in the building’s walls and feared showing up to work every day.

The need to change Bangladesh labor laws, practices and enforcement to ensure workers have their basic rights to associate and bargain collectively is too often seen as secondary to fire and safety remediation. The prime minister and three key department secretaries described to me in detail the steps being taken to install fire protection systems, to hire engineers to inspect structures and to compensate victims and provide health care. This is vital, and still painfully incomplete, but every worker whom I spoke with recognized that if they had a real voice in the workplace they would never have entered those dangerous working conditions.

The Rana Plaza building collapse that killed 1,132 workers, coming just five months after a fire at the Tazreen factory killed 112, hit the world with long-overdue force. The U.S. government has temporarily suspended trade benefits to Bangladesh. The European Union is considering similar and broader action. Retailers have split into separate groups seeking to address building fires and safety. And the International Labor Organization is engaging in on-the-ground work to strengthen worker rights, as are individual NGOs and labor unions.

Combined, these first steps represent a unique development in international trade. And I made it clear to everyone I met during my visit that it is our hope to restore trade benefits and bring about lasting change for the Bangladeshi people.

That change — particularly with regard to worker rights — will not come easily. The task is immense. Four million people, mostly women, work in the nation’s garment industry, by far the largest source of non-rural employment and the most important cog in Bangladesh’s economy. Most workers I met were making between 25 and 35 cents per hour.

While there have been some recent labor law reforms, it is clear that that worker rights today are more a mirage than a reality.

Garment industry owners are active at all levels of government, with many serving in the Parliament and working to weaken labor law reform. At one of the plants I visited, management friendly to the efforts by workers to organize were visited by Government Intelligence Officers. Obscure requirements make registering labor organizations difficult.

Providing workers with rights to insist on safe working conditions and higher wages will not harm the ability of Bangladesh entrepreneurs to compete. I visited two factories whose labor costs represented barely more than 2% of the product’s $60 retail price. Wages could be doubled and would still represent a small increase in production costs. Reality does not conform to the position taken by a CEO of one of the country’s largest middleman companies, who said that for factories to get safer, clothing prices would have to go up, and “so far consumers have just not been willing to accept higher costs.” Surely, consumers should be given the chance to buy goods produced safely by workers making a decent wage.

The U.S., working collaboratively with the EU, must continue to insist that all partners are meaningfully at the table and that we address fire and safety and the fundamental issue of labor law reform and worker rights together. And while Bangladesh is not among the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, those discussions must fortify the progress we have made to incorporate international standards in trade agreements. That agreement must include a fully enforceable workers’ rights standard, and we must insist that Vietnam and others rise to this standard so that it is not the next magnet for lowest common denominator trade.

Trade must build on free markets that are not predatory, that do not create a race to the bottom, and that do not simply move from one country to another to exploit the cheapest labor. Rather, it must build on competition based on standards that spread the benefits of globalization to all corners of the world.

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