Tax Dollars for Sweatshops? The Poverty of Good Intentions

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This is a guest column by Robert J. Ross, professor of sociology at Clark University, author of the book Slaves to Fashion, and vice president of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. For more on this topic, see last week’s perspective from David Wyld.


The world was shocked in April of 2013 when 1,132 workers were killed in a building collapse in a Bangladesh garment factory. Warnings had been issued about cracks in the walls of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, on the day before, but the workers were forced to enter the building on the morning of the collapse. Illegal floors had been added to the structure and the permitting process it had received was redolent of shady political influence. Even now, eight months later, the families of survivors and the hundreds of wounded workers have yet to receive full and just compensation for their losses. For most readers in Western world, this was disaster on a scale previously unimaginable, but close observers of the world’s rag trade were not surprised.

Bangladesh has had a gruesome history of major fires and building collapses in the garment industry, going back 20 years and more. Work done by the International Labor Rights Forum (to which I contributed numerical analysis) shows that there were more than 1,000 deaths from factory fires and collapses in Bangladesh from 1990-2012; and after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, fire continued to take the lives of Bangladeshi garment workers. Until Rana Plaza, the two greatest garment industry fire tolls were New York’s Triangle Factory blaze in 1911, which claimed 146 lives, and the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh in November 2012 which killed 112 workers.

Cutthroat global competition—the race to the bottom in labor standards—is at the base of the callousness with which factory owners treat workers, and retailers and major brands treat their contractors. Even as Bangladesh’s industry became notably perilous, the Western importers made that country the second largest volume exporter of garments. Data I have collected over the last decade show why: The average price for imported garments (which is most of the clothing Americans wear) is going down, and Bangladesh is the lowest price source in the world.

It is not a surprise to find the North American giant retailers, Wal-Mart and GAP at the head of the list of importers from Bangladesh. And given their records of callousness, it is not surprising that they would have rejected the pioneering Accord on Fire and Building Safety, saying that they were concerned about its mandatory nature and the possibility for lawsuits it created. That well over 100 firms, including six North American ones, did sign the accord suggests the crocodile tears of the big US importers are less than fully sincere.

What is surprising to some, baffling to others, annoying to advocates, and should be enraging to those who hoped their government would represent ethical standards—is that the US government appears to be behaving, despite protestations of good intentions, in the same manner as the scofflaw firms.

A recent careful feature by Ian Urbina in the New York Times shows the government clothing purchases—for a variety of uniform items—are sourced from pretty much the same factories that are burning, collapsing, cheating their workers, and hiring child labor. The federal agencies, which proclaim zero-tolerance for labor abuse, use the same outmoded techniques of contract procurement and compliance that allow the brands to be purveyors of poverty and danger. The agencies—like the big firms—are not compelled by law or contract to “Do The Right Thing.”

The flaws of the voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) “movement” is that the “social” audits the firms pay for are private, not done by independent entities, and the results do not produce mandatory remedies. Worse, they generally exclude workers as authoritative actors in negotiating wages, conditions, or safety. Workers are the first, best and last monitors of factory conditions, and the best defenders of their own interests. Codes that presume to substitute either ethical consumers’ or corporate managers’ judgment for workers’ self-defense are part of a paternalist mentality best left in the 19th Century.

The historic Bangladesh Accord is mandatory for the signatories; if internal process does not work binding arbitration settles disagreements about the safety measures and the administration of safety investments; violations may be taken to a court t of law; workers’ voice is mandatory at the both the factory level and in the administration of the overall project. This resembles, roughly, the strategy of controlling contractor abuse in the US garment industry that evolved in the 1940s. These were “jobber agreements” that required the manufacturers (i.e., today’s brands) to take responsibility for conditions and benefits in contractor factories.

In a surprise moment of partial accomplishment, last summer (2013) the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Defense Authorization act which would have required military retail stores (post exchanges) to source from firms that were part of or met the standards of the Accords. The amendment did not survive the Senate version of the Bill; arcane maneuvering killed it.

That leaves the US government and the US taxpayer back where we were: paying taxes to support factories that abuse workers and sometimes kill them.

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