The Price of Fashion

The price of fashion is on the rise as the death toll in Bangladesh’s garment factories grows.

Another fire in another garment factory – this one about 25 miles from the garment factory whose April collapse killed more than 1,100 workers – took the lives of at least 10 more workers on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.

Most of the workers who perished in this week’s fire were so badly burned they could not be identified. Approximately 50 other workers were injured in the fire, which took firefighters nearly 10 hours to overcome.

To readers who think these tragedies have nothing to do with American consumers – think again. The price of fashion is always close to home.

You see, last week’s fire occurred at the garment factory Aswad Composite Mills, which produces clothing for Western retailers such as Wal-Mart, Loblaw Cos., and Hudson’s Bay Co.

Wal-Mart and Hudson’s Bay Co. were two of the 17 North American retailers and brands who refused to sign on to the global Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh – a five-year legally binding agreement between international labor organizations, nongovernmental organizations and retailers to improve safety standards in Bangladesh’s thriving, but dangerous textile industry.

More than 70 international brands and retailers, such as H&M and Zara, signed the global accord and pledged to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories. But most U.S. retailers declined.

Instead, Wal-Mart, GAP, Target, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sears, L. L. Bean, J.C. Penney, Limited, The Children’s Place, Hudson’s Bay, Carter’s, and others signed onto a weaker plan spearheaded by Wal-Mart and GAP. Their Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety is not legally binding and has left labor representatives off of its eight-member board. Essentially, the brands want factory owners to regulate themselves – an approach that has been tried in the past with fatal results for workers.

As evidenced by this week’s fire, Wal-Mart, et al, still are not doing enough to ensure that the workers slaving away to make their low-priced products are safe on the job.

For their troubles, garment factory workers in Bangladesh earn about $38 a month. A month.

As long as companies are allowed to operate in Bangladesh with minimal oversight, they will continue to cut corners, to the detriment of worker safety. And as long as these companies get away with cost-cutting measures to pad their bottom line abroad, they have little incentive to maintain high standards for their workers here in the U.S.

They will rely on temporary labor instead of permanent staff; reduce staff hours to deny benefits; withhold hard-earned wages; and block workers from organizing for better conditions on the job.

We must raise the floor for workers internationally – from the garment workers in Bangladesh to the retail workers here at home.

Until we raise the bar, workers will continue to be injured or killed on the job – and that makes the price of fashion too high.