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THE BANGLADESH WORKER
NEWS THIS YEAR: As they fell victim to the worst garment industry disaster in history, which was far from isolated, the Bangladesh apparel worker suffered through what can only be described as a horrible year. Incidents such as the Rana Plaza building collapse in April that killed 1,132 people and the fire at Tazreen Fashions last November in which 112 workers perished were the worst of a series of deadly disasters that created an outcry inside and outside the industry and country for action to change the global supply chain system.
The Western retailers and brands that made Bangladesh an export powerhouse for apparel reacted by creating two separate plans — the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, led by the IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union and including 100 mostly European companies and a handful of U.S. ones, and the North American-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which includes most major U.S. retailers. Companies have also received criticism for generally not issuing compensation for the injured and the families of those who perished, and the Alliance has been negatively cited for not including unions or worker groups. Both plans aim to improve working conditions with funding for factory improvements and setting new standards for health and safety, and inspections.
There’s also been plenty of finger pointing over who or what is to blame. There’s the government corruption that allowed for building codes to not be enforced and for factory owners also being among the political power brokers. Those same factory owners are also cited for ignoring the health and safety of the workers, and fighting efforts to allow them to organize. But some put the ultimate blame on the decision-makers — the big companies that choose to manufacture in the country despite its poor track record of safety and labor abuses.
“The black eye is deserved,” said Rick Helfenbein, president of Luen Thai USA, speaking at a panel on the topic at the WWD CEO Summit. “I don’t think there’s anybody…in retail or manufacturing that intended for this to happen. But it was the old expression, ‘It was an accident waiting to happen.’”
For veteran labor rights advocate Charles Kernaghan, the foundation for change has to come from allowing the industry to unionize. He said, “There has to be the ability for unions to form across the developing world. Give [workers] a chance to have unions and we’ll see a transformation. It has to come from the workers, but it also has to come from the retailers. You can’t just go there as bystanders.”
— ARTHUR FRIEDMAN
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