Over this past weekend, the death toll from the April 24, 2013, collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Savar, Bangladesh, was raised to 1,129 people. These workers lost their lives in the world’s deadliest-ever garment factory disaster. The workers were forced by their employers to continue sewing, despite obvious cracks in the supporting pillars of the building and workers’ observations that the structure was near collapse.
What pushed them to continue, despite the risks? The employers knew that retailers needed the clothes. A lost day of production might strain the relationship between the retailers and the factory owners—or worse, the retailers might begin purchasing garments from other factories. And so, on the morning of April 24, despite warnings from police and local law enforcement, and under the threat from factory owners that every single day missed at work would cost three days’ salary, thousands of workers walked into the Rana Plaza garment factory for the last time.
In the ongoing battle to produce increasingly cheaper clothing, safety standards and worker protections are often unfortunately ignored. The Bangladeshi government is plagued by corruption and lack of will to implement real changes to protect its workers. The government is also concerned about alienating Western retailers. It also wants to support the growing garment industry, which employs more than 3.5 million people and makes up 80 percent of the country’s exports. This industry has helped the country develop and has pulled millions of Bangladeshi people out of the throes of poverty.
Due to extensive media coverage following the Rana Plaza disaster, more Americans than ever are aware of the pitiful factory conditions under which workers around the world slave away to make our cheap clothes. But do they know that if a mere 10 cents—one dime—were added to the price of every garment that came from Bangladesh, every factory in the country could meet basic safety standards and have new or updated safety equipment installed?
Retailers must think Americans simply don’t care, that U.S. consumers couldn’t find it in their hearts and wallets to dig up an additional dime to help save lives. In the wake of the tragedy, only two American retailers signed a new accord mandating they invest money in making factories safer. Meanwhile, nearly 30 European companies have signed on.
Some of the biggest U.S. retailers, including Walmart, Gap and JC Penney, decided that saving thousands of lives was not worth the investment. The latest reports are that Gap is considering the accord. The National Consumers League hopes the iconic jean-maker does the right thing and steps up as a leader among slow-moving American companies.
It’s now on us. If retailers won’t do the right thing, we consumers have to. Consumers must let retailers know they do care.
The tragedies in Bangladesh, which continue with alarming regularity, must outlive the news cycle, and American consumers must speak up and demand change.
The National Consumers League is asking consumers to let their voices be heard. Visit our Facebook page and sign a pledge stating you are willing to spend an extra 10 cents on clothing to save lives.
The wave of consumer pressure is building; Gap was not considering the accord by the May 15 deadline, but now it may be on the verge of signing. Consumers are pressuring companies to do the right thing in online petitions and other forums, and their voices are being heard.
We are at a potentially pivotal point in history. In Bangladesh, an additional 500 people have been killed in other factory disasters over the past decade. The current situation is reminiscent of workplace tragedies in the United States -- a century ago -- that ultimately compelled government and corporations to clean up their acts and better protect workers’ lives.
If consumers band together, we have amazing power to influence society. We hope, for the garment workers of Bangladesh, that time is now.