NEW YORK -- Bangladesh offers the global garment industry something unique: Millions of workers who quickly churn out huge amounts of well-made underwear, jeans and T-shirts for the lowest wages in the world.
But since a building collapse April 24 killed at least 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh in one of the deadliest industrial tragedies in history, the country has gone from one of the industry's greatest assets to one of its biggest liabilities.
"The risk factors have jumped off the charts," said Julie Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, a trade group that represents retailers who import garments. "This is worse than what anyone had imagined."
Working conditions in Bangladesh's garment industry long have been known to be grim, a result of government corruption, desperation for jobs and industry indifference. But the scale of this tragedy has raised alarm among executives and customers.
The Facebook pages of Joe Fresh, Mango and Benetton, a few of the brands whose clothing or production documents were found in the rubble of the collapsed building, are peppered with angry comments from shoppers. Some warn they're going to shop elsewhere now.
Retailers are also facing street protests. In the U.S., university chapters of United Students Against Sweatshops are helping to stage demonstrations against Gap in more than a dozen cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles and New York. The group plans to target other retailers it believes are not committed to stricter standards for Bangladeshi factories.
The rising death toll may force western brands to make a choice: Stay and work to improve conditions, or leave and face higher costs, similar or worse worker conditions in other low-wage countries and criticism for abandoning a poor nation where per-capita income is just $1,940 a year.
Most retailers have vowed to stay and promised to work for change. Walmart and the Swedish retailer H&M, the top two producers of clothing in Bangladesh, have said they have no plans to leave. Other big chains such as The Children's Place, Mango, J.C. Penney, Gap, Benetton and Sears have said the same.
But for some, the risk of being in Bangladesh has become too great. The Walt Disney Co. announced this month it is stopping production of its branded goods in Bangladesh.
It's not easy for retailers who make their clothes in Bangladesh to simply leave. There is no shortage of cheap labour or garment factories around the world, but it takes months or even years to establish relationships with new factories that retailers can trust to turn out large volumes of garments to their specifications on time.
Even if retailers move their business to other low-cost countries, they still face threats to their reputations.
Of the major garment-manufacturing countries, Bangladesh's working conditions pose the highest risk to brands, according to Maplecroft, a risk-analysis firm based in Bath, England. But Bangladesh ranks somewhat better than many low-cost countries on other labour issues, such as child labour and forced labour.
Another reason it's hard for retailers to leave is that Bangladesh is one of the few places in the world that has enough workers, manufacturing capacity and experience to provide high volume, low prices, good quality and predictable service.
The garment industry in Bangladesh is the third-biggest exporter of clothes in the world, after China and Italy. There are 5,000 factories in the country and 3.6 million garment workers. Manufacturers have easy access to cheap raw materials, and the country's political situation has been relatively stable.
And its garment workers command the lowest wages in the world. The average worker in Bangladesh earns the equivalent of 24 cents an hour, compared with 45 cents in Cambodia, 52 cents in Pakistan, 53 cents in Vietnam and $1.26 in China, according to the Worker Rights Consortium, a worker advocacy group.
On Sunday a Bangladesh cabinet minister said the government plans to raise the minimum wage for garment workers.
-- The Associated Press