By Bjorn Claeson, International Labor Rights Forum
For many years the dirty secret of the steadily growing Bangladeshi garment industry has been its disposable workers. The lowest paid garment workers anywhere in the world, hundreds of them have died in preventable factory fires and building collapses during the last two decades, and countless more have been injured. After each tragedy, labor groups have asked: How many more workers will have to die before the industry changes? Workers have demanded “no more fires.”
But the industry has not listened because fires are part of the Bangladeshi business equation. For the international brands that have made Bangladesh one of the largest clothing exporters in the world, it costs less to compensate the families of dead workers than to build safe buildings and maintain reasonable health and safety measures. For the Bangladeshi government, rock-bottom wages, poorly enforced health and safety standards, and weak building codes are the recipe for success in an industry that generates 75% of the country’s export earnings. So each and every year the precarious industry has continued to grow, and workers have continued to die. The causes of death everybody knows: damaged and overloaded electrical systems; large quantities of poorly-kept flammable materials; absent or inadequate firefighting equipment; locked doors or blocked aisles; and no emergency planning and evacuation plans. All are entirely preventable causes.
Today, however, there is a ray of hope for Bangladesh’s garment workers that the day will come when they no longer have to fear fires and building collapses at work.
A large apparel company has for the first time agreed to a legally-binding, enforceable, and well-funded fire and building safety program containing the following path-breaking elements:
- Independent and publicly-disclosed building inspections directed by a chief inspector with no ties to the industry.
- Mandatory and time-bound factory renovations and reparations to eliminate building and fire hazards.
- Incentives to factories for compliance in the form of orders and fair product prices.
- Workers’ voice: workers can report health and safety hazards confidentially to the chief inspector or to mandatory health and safety committees in their own workplaces.
- A safety training program with trade union participation.
The International Labor Rights Forum and other labor groups signed the Joint Memorandum of Understanding on Fire and Building Safety (MOU) with the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation (PVH Corp), one of the world’s largest apparel companies, in the days before an ABC exposé of some U.S. brands that have benefitted from the shoddy health and safety standards in Bangladeshi garment factories, among them PVH’s Tommy Hilfiger line, and Gap and Kohl’s brands. Labor stakeholders in Bangladesh as well as international unions and non-governmental organizations support the agreement. On the international side, the Worker Rights Consortium, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Maquila Solidarity Network, and the International Textile, Garments and Leather Workers Federation helped to negotiate the agreement. Seven Bangladeshi unions and NGOs have signed it.
The fire and building safety program, financed by participating companies, will go into effect when at least three other well-known international brand owners sign the agreement. Now other brands need a push to save the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers. Please sign this petition to urge every brand that buys garments in Bangladesh to join the agreement. Tell them to erase fires and building collapses from their business equation.