Another tragedy at a Bangladesh clothing factory, another announcement by Wal-Mart about additional steps it will take to beef up worker safety, this time by inspecting all of its suppliers’ facilities itself. Not that the retailing giant hasn’t made real efforts already to improve employee safety in notoriously bad factories overseas, but the deaths of more than 1,100 people at the Rana Plaza factory last month should signal that a piecemeal, go-it-alone approach is insufficient, even for the biggest retailer in the world.
That’s especially true considering that after the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory, in which more than 100 workers perished last year, Wal-Mart announced that it would re-check all of its subcontractors. Wal-Mart had rejected Tazreen as a place to have its clothes made, but two of its contractors used it anyway. Similarly, there was an unauthorized contract to make goods for Wal-Mart at Rana Plaza.
This isn’t just a Wal-Mart problem. Many companies contract their garment work out to Bangladesh, with its ultra-low wages and lack of regulation. But the abuse of workers in developing nations — especially in Bangladesh, the world capital of cheaply produced clothing — is a complicated matter that requires cooperative, unified reform.
The hazards at the Rana Plaza building were apparent before the April 24 collapse; police and an industry association had warned that the structure was unsafe. But the Bangladeshi government took no steps; workers were ordered to their posts by their employers even after they expressed fear about entering the building. The government should get moving on its vow to beef up safety rules and ensure workers’ right to unionize, though its history of broken promises inspires little confidence.
The most encouraging development so far is that several European companies, including H&M, the biggest purchaser of Bangladeshi-made clothes, have signed a pact to work together to ensure that Bangladeshi workers toil in safe buildings. They will pool resources to inspect buildings, contribute to a fund to upgrade factories and submit to binding arbitration in disputes over safety commitments. Most U.S. companies — including Wal-Mart — have declined to join; many have expressed concerns about the legal implications of the arbitration.
There might be other valid ways, such as independent compliance audits, to ensure that companies follow through on their promises. The important thing is for U.S. companies to join together to set common standards and present a united front so that competitors don’t undermine the effort by contracting with cheaper but unscrupulous Bangladeshi manufacturers. American companies should invest in the safety that they say is so important to them even if it costs customers an extra 50 cents to a dollar for a pair of jeans.