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As Death Toll Rises, Report Shows Big Retail Brands Chose Profit over Safety in Bangladesh

Hundreds of thousands protest dangerous "sweatshop" conditions as police fire tear gas, rubber bullets

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

A Bangladeshi woman was lifted out of the rubble by rescuers at the site of a building that collapsed in Bangladesh. (Kevin Frayer/Associated Press)As the death toll soared past 300 in the aftermath of Wednesday's garment factory disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and over 1,000 remained unaccounted for on Friday, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of thousands of mourning protesters fed up with an international garment industry that continues to place profit over workers' lives.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports Friday that in 2011 several major western retailers rejected a proposal made by a group of Bangladeshi and international unions that outlined a way to clean up Bangladesh's garment factories. The plan would have established an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh "with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions."

"The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world's largest clothing brands and retailers — including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M — but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly," AP reports.

At the time, Wal-Mart's representative told the meeting it was "not financially feasible ... to make such investments," according to minutes of the meeting obtained by AP.

'Not Financially Feasible...': Inspections would have been funded by contributions from the companies of merely $500,000 per year, compared to the $20 billion Western brands such as Walmart, the Gap and H&M make from the garment industry in Bangladesh per year.

The inspections would have been funded by contributions from the companies of merely $500,000 per year, compared to the $20 billion Western brands such as Walmart, the Gap and H&M make from the garment industry in Bangladesh per year. All told, garment manufacturing is a $1 trillion global industry.

Five garment factories were housed in the eight-story building that collapsed on Wednesday in Dhaka. The factories have been sub-contracted to supply clothing for Wal-Mart in the past, but Wal-Mart officials said that they are still investigating whether their products were being produced in the factory at the time of the disaster.

Among the factory owners in the building were Phantom Apparels Ltd., New Wave Style Ltd., New Wave Bottoms Ltd. and New Wave Brothers Ltd. garment factories, who at the time were making clothing for a number of brands including Benetton, Primark, Loblaws, The Children's Place and Dress Barn.

On Friday, the New York Times reports, labor groups distributed photos showing that they had discovered garments with labels from J.C. Penney and El Corte Inglés, a Spanish retailer, at the site of the collapse.

The collapse is the latest in a series of factory disasters in Bangladesh tied to western brands including a massive blaze which broke out in the Tazreen factory in November, killing 112 workers. Clothes made for Disney, Wal-Mart and other western labels were found at that factory.

Factory owners from the building ignored a warning not to allow their workers into the building after a crack was detected in the building's structure on Tuesday.

On Friday, hundreds of rescuers continued to dig through the masses of factory rubble for the third day in a row as "the cries of the trapped and the wails of workers' relatives gathered outside the building," AP reports.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of workers and relatives from the hundreds of garment factories continued to protest throughout the day Friday.

Bangladeshi media reported that two factories have been burned by protesters demanding the death penalty for the owner of collapsed building, said to have broken many building codes, as well as the owners of the factories inside the building.

However, as Dara O’Rourke, an expert on workplace monitoring at the University of California, Berkeley, reminded the New York Times, it is important to remember the source of labor exploitation in places such as Bangladesh: "Even in a situation of grave threat, when they saw cracks in the walls, factory managers thought it was too risky not to work because of the pressure on them from U.S. and European retailers to deliver their goods on time,” O’Rourke, said, adding that the prices Western companies pay “are so low that they are at the root of why these factories are cutting corners on fire safety and building safety.”

"Improvement is not happening," said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, who said a total of 600 workers have died in factory accidents in the last decade. "The multinational companies claim a lot of things. They claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system," Amin said. "But yet these things keep happening."

Rescue workers, army personnel, police and members of media run after they heard someone shouting that a building next to Rana Plaza is collapsing during a rescue operation in Savar, 30 km (19 miles) outside Dhaka April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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