Editor’s Note: Steven Greenhouse was a reporter at The New York Times for 31 years and was its labor and workplace correspondent for 19 years. He is writing a book about the past, present and future of labor unions and worker advocacy in America. He is author of “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker” (Knopf 2008). Follow him on Twitter @Greenhousenyt. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
One morning five years ago, hundreds of apparel workers were hesitating to report to work inside the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh because workers had seen cracks the day before in several of the building’s concrete pillars. But factory managers – worried about production deadlines – warned the workers that if they didn’t report to work, they’d be docked a month’s pay.
So they reluctantly reported to work, and when generators in the building rumbled into full gear later that morning, the eight-story building collapsed, killing 1,134 workers in what was one of the worst industrial accidents in world history.
That disaster – April 24 marks its fifth anniversary – finally got Bangladesh’s garment makers and their customers to take safety seriously. Finally, American and European retailers and brands that relied heavily on Bangladesh and its 4 million garment workers took decisive action to improve factory safety. Five months earlier, a fire at the Tazreen apparel factory in Bangladesh killed 117, and that did little to spur movement on safety.
But after the Rana Plaza disaster, and pushed by human rights groups, labor unions and consumers, H&M, Benetton and more than 200 other retailers and apparel brands finally created an unusually ambitious effort – known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh – that has gone far to ensure safety in the 1,621 factories they use in Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, while safety has improved in Bangladesh, far too many problems remain in that country’s – and the world’s – garment industry. More than 1,000 Bangladeshi apparel factories are not covered by these stepped-up safety measures because the brands that use those factories have not signed on to the accord’s ambitious effort.
Nor, sad to say, does the accord and its rigorous safety measures cover other countries that manufacture clothing for Americans and Europeans – Cambodia, India, Vietnam, and Pakistan.
These countries could certainly use tougher safety measures. In September 2012, a fire tore through the Ali Enterprises apparel factory in Karachi, Pakistan, killing 289 workers. Labor advocates complain that Pakistani authorities have done far too little to inspect factories, pointing to numerous recent fires, as well as a four-story factory that collapsed in Lahore in November 2015, killing 20 workers.
As part of the Bangladesh accord’s ambitious efforts, 94 engineers have been hired to do comprehensive inspections. The accord’s members insisted on fireproof doors, fire drills and fire safety committees in every factory, and an end to locked and blocked exits. Its engineers tested factory buildings to make sure that their columns, unlike Rana Plaza’s, could bear the weight without collapsing.
The accord’s members pledged to stop using Bangladeshi factories that didn’t meet safety standards – and 96 factories have since been terminated.
According to a new report by Mark Anner, director of the Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights, the accord’s inspectors found more than 131,000 violations, from unsafe electrical fixtures to a lack of fire doors, and 97,000 have been corrected. In 2013, 97% of accord factories lacked safe exits because of lockable or collapsible gates; now 96% of them have corrected that problem.
American companies like Walmart, Target and Gap didn’t join the accord because labor unions were involved and because of its legally binding language. Instead, those companies and two dozen others created their own smaller effort that also invested heavily in factory safety in Bangladesh. Together, those two efforts took historic strides on safety, but the effort is certainly not over.
In Bangladesh’s clothing industry, there are problems beyond safety. After-inflation wages have dropped by 6.5% since the country’s minimum wage was last increased in 2013. That nation’s minimum wage is $64 a month, coming to just 31 cents an hour for many apparel workers.
Many experts said Bangladesh’s factories overlooked safety shortcomings because of tight deadlines and profit margins. Nonetheless, Anner found that lead times on orders have actually declined since 2011 and that the prices paid to Bangladeshi apparel factories fell by 13% from 2011 to 2016. “The pricing squeeze has resulted in persistently low wages that do not cover living needs,” he wrote.
Bangladesh’s government and companies often don’t look kindly on workers’ freedom of association. In December 2016, when thousands of workers protested for higher pay, Bangladesh authorities arrested 14 labor activists, and factories suspended or fired 1,500 workers.
Some factory owners dispatch thugs to beat up union leaders, and one factory posted threatening placards showing a doctored photo of a union leader, Chandon Kumar Dey, with a noose around his neck.
But Bangladesh’s garment industry isn’t unique in its struggle. The United States waged a similar battle over a century ago. On March 25, 1911, a fire erupted at the Triangle shirtwaist factory in Manhattan, killing 129 women and 17 men. More than 50 workers jumped to their deaths from ninth floor.
The Triangle factory had a locked exit, its fire escape was so flimsy that it collapsed from the weight of fleeing workers, and it had more than a ton of cotton scraps lying around as ideal tinder. It was after the Triangle fire – which shocked all of America – that New York State and the nation took significant steps on factory safety.
Tragically, it’s only after the huge disasters like the Triangle fire and Rana Plaza that companies get serious about safety. It too often seems that workers have more influence from the grave than when they’re alive.