How clothing makers can step up to ensure worker safety

The recent collapse of the Rana Plaza, a sweater factory fire in Dhaka and the 2012 fire in the Tazreen garment factory have left more than 1,500 garment workers dead and at least 1,000 seriously injured. While these incidents are unrelated, they reflect the abysmal human rights record of global companies that overlook working conditions in Bangladesh.

Historically, these types of episodes have been greeted with only temporary outrage. Sweatshops have dogged the apparel industry since the 1990s, notably with the Kathie Lee Gifford and Jaclyn Smith clothing line scandals. Despite occasional lawsuits and boycotts, the apparel industry largely has treated these public relations nightmares as a cost of business, and it tends to look the other way. Americans in particular have a short attention span on child labor and poor working conditions that occur in faraway places. However, anyone who has visited a maquiladora across the Mexican border to see how American companies escape our labor and environmental laws would be outraged.

Because of the apparel industry’s history with exploitation, it was among the first sector to establish codes of conduct and ways to verify compliance with such standards. But such audits have revealed a lack of discipline regarding the manufacture of products, which are often subcontracted to no-name operators who have no direct relationship with the brand owner.

Companies’ non-binding and confidential social compliance programs have sidelined workers and trade unions and have failed to protect workers. While factory auditing remains common and shop-floor training has increased to help monitor working conditions, problems persist with substandard building codes, low wages and lack of organized labor in some countries. This has created a lack of coherence between retailers’ stated codes of conduct and their procurement practices

Meanwhile, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, formed by leading human rights, labor and environmental groups, has been defining the materiality of human rights issues as they relate to profitability in order to demonstrate the real risk to companies that don’t support better standards or the disclosure of human rights and sustainability practices. ICAR was essential to the United Nations’ development of its Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights, but implementing those principles remains a challenge.

Of particular importance is that businesses and other stakeholders need to state how poor human rights standards are material to the bottom line. When work stops or conflict arises with communities, it does affect productivity. Howeer, not until the industry interprets these instances as more than a cost of doing business will a higher standard be set. Part of the problem is that American companies are not held to the same labor and environmental standards in other countries as they are in the United States. American consumers, however, care primarily about low cost goods and not the working conditions, pay or environmental consequences of their production.

Because Congress won’t pass laws that require companies with operations outside the United States to assure worker and community safety and welfare, it is up to the public to pressure apparel makers to adopt higher operational standards. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a legally binding agreement between the companies and unions. It features independent safety inspections with public reports, mandatory factory building renovations, the obligation by brands and retailers to underwrite the cost of repairs and a vital role for workers and their unions in protecting their own safety.

Since the Accord was announced, 50 companies have signed on. Among the American brands are Abercrombie & Fitch, PVH (owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein), Sean John Apparel, Scoop NYC and Zac Posen.

Measuring tape image from Juan R. Velasco/Shutterstock

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