Inside the garment factory, hundreds of poor women sewed the clothes that filled our shops. The factory’s owners had been warned that the place was hazardous; they ignored the warnings. When disaster struck, the death toll was horrendous.
That describes the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 Jewish and Italian immigrants, many under 18, roasted or plunged to their deaths after the owner of the Manhattan clothing factory ignored fire-safety warnings and locked workers inside.
It also seems to be what happened this week on the outskirts of Dhaka when an eight-storey complex collapsed after its owners had reportedly ignored government warnings about dangerous fractures in the building. The death toll has topped 300. Many of the clothes they were sewing were for European and North American consumers, including some being made for Joe Fresh, owned by grocery giant Loblaw Cos. Ltd.
That leads to uncomfortable questions: If you’re wearing Joe Fresh, do you have hundreds of deaths on your hands? Are our clothing bargains creating poverty, misery and death in poor countries? Would the world be better off if we didn’t buy clothes made in Bangladesh?
Those questions are understandable, but they miss the larger context.
Wal-Mart Nixed Paying Bangladesh Suppliers to Fight Fire
By Renee Dudley & Arun Devnath
Dec 5, 2012 8:57 AM MT
At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly.Bangladeshi people identify the bodies of their relatives who died in a fire at a garment factory in the Savar neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday Nov. 25, 2012. Polash Khan/AP Photo
Details of the meeting have emerged after a fire at a Bangladesh factory that made clothes for Wal-Mart and Sears Holdings Corp. killed more than 100 people last month. The blaze has renewed pressure on companies to improve working conditions in Bangladesh, where more than 700 garment workers have died since 2005, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.
At the April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, retailers discussed a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories prices high enough to cover costs of safety improvements. Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Wal-Mart director of ethical sourcing, told attendees the company wouldn’t share the cost, according to Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, who attended the gathering. Kalavakolanu and her counterpart at Gap reiterated their position in a report folded into the meeting minutes, obtained by Bloomberg News.