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Retailers Sign Pact On Bangladesh Factory Inspections

A Bangladeshi worker participates in a protest outside a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Sunday. Hundreds of garment workers demanded better conditions. (AP)

We've been following the story of the collapse in Bangladesh of a building that housed several factories where clothes were made for Western retailers. More than 1,000 people died in that disaster in April, and the incident shed light on working conditions in Bangladesh, the world's No. 2 exporter of clothing.

Now there's news that a broad coalition of trade unions and 70 mostly European retailers have come together to sign a deal on fire and building safety in Bangladesh.

Among the signatories are H&M and Inditex, the world's largest retailer, which owns brands like Zara. U.S. companies like Walmart and Gap have refused to sign on, saying the accord gives labor unions too much control over workplace safety.

Reuters reports:

"The largely European plan, coordinated by Switzerland-based unions IndustriALL and UNI Global, involves the creation of a team of inspectors to evaluate fire, electrical, structural and worker safety in factories supplying signatory brands.

"In a report published on Monday, the implementation team said that all 70 signatory brands had to provide full details of the Bangladesh factories from which they source goods — the first time such data would be collected or shared in such a comprehensive way.

"Every factory will undergo an initial inspection within the next nine months, with repairs initiated where necessary and a process put in place to allow companies or workers to report problems with buildings that pose an immediate risk."

An Industry's Rapid Rise

NPR's Jim Zarroli reported in May on Bangladesh's ascent to become the world's second largest exporter of clothing, after China. Almost 4 million people are employed in the sector, some of them earning less than $40 a month.

"Those wages have become especially attractive to clothing companies, now that pay is rising in China," Jim noted. "But cheap labor is only part of the reason for Bangladesh's growth as a garment center."

He cited 1980s-era U.S. textile quotas that shifted production from places like South Korea and Taiwan to Bangladesh as another reason for the sector's growth in the South Asian nation.

But a little more than two months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building outside the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, the government's own effort to overhaul the sector has been limited.

The New York Times is reporting on the country's garment industry in the aftermath of the collapse. It says:

"[T]wo months after the collapse, the inspections process is disorganized and haphazard, with unclear lines of authority. The Ministry of Textiles is overseeing some inspections. An industry trade group is organizing others. The local development authority in Dhaka is involved, and the country's top engineering school is playing a central role. Some global brands have also sent inspection teams."

Aftermath

Lauren Frayer reported on some of the efforts in Europe to raise awareness of the working conditions in Bangladesh. Similarly, Dan Bobkoff examined some of the challenges in the U.S. faced by consumers when confronted with higher prices for "ethical" clothing.

But there are some efforts underway by U.S. manufacturers to pay workers a better wage, as NPR's Jackie Northam found in her reporting from the Dominican Republic.

"[At the Alta Gracia garment factory, the] roughly 130 workers make a little more than $3 an hour, or about $500 a month," she noted. "In addition, the employees received benefits and are allowed to unionize. By comparison, a typical wage at similar factories in the region is less than $1 an hour."

The problem: The Alta Gracia factory isn't yet turning a profit.

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