Bangladesh Lacks Factory, Fire Inspectors For Huge Industry

Melissa Block interviews Judy Gearhart of the International Labor Rights Forum about what the collapse of a complex of garment factories in Bangladesh reveals about the state of the global garment industry.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Bangladesh today, crowds chanted hang him as the owner of a garment factory building was led into court. The eight-story building collapsed last week, killing some 400 workers. Hundreds more remain unaccounted for. It's the worst industrial accident ever in Bangladesh, and it comes just months after a factory fire there killed more than 100 garment workers.

We've asked Judy Gearhart to talk with us about garment workers' safety, and what the U.S. consumer should know. She is executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum. Judy Gearhart, welcome to the program.

JUDY GEARHART: Thank you.

BLOCK: And let's start with this fact. The garment industry is huge in Bangladesh, right? About $20 billion or so a year, 80 percent of the country's exports. Who polices that industry?

GEARHART: They really don't have enough inspectors for those factories. And the growth of the garment industry in Bangladesh has been so rapid. The factories have grown up pretty much helter skelter. And they often - if they have a building permit, it's often for maybe two stories, as in the case of the Rana factories. They did not have the permit to go to eight stories.

You can drive around Bangladesh and see all sorts of factory buildings with still the iron spires coming up out of them because they're always prepared to build on the next floor. There also aren't enough fire safety inspectors to look at what's happening. I think the last count we saw, there were something like 80 fire inspectors for, you know, for all of Bangladesh, and you have 5,000 garment factories.

BLOCK: Are there garment workers' unions?

GEARHART: There are garment workers' unions, and they're on the ground looking into how to help workers set up the compensation fund for workers. They're also looking at what are the labels that were found in the rubble of the Rana Plaza.

BLOCK: If you were to compare labor conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh with other countries, where would it fall?

GEARHART: Among the lowest. Bangladesh has the lowest wages in the world, $37 a month, and their minimum wage is raised only every three years to the point where even some of the global brands call out and say, we need to raise the minimum wage sooner. What's worse than the minimum wage is the fact that workers aren't able to speak up and negotiate for better terms. So in 2010, the last time workers pushed for a raise in the minimum wage, they were holding protests and marches, and a lot of the people who were organizing workers were arrested and put in jail and tortured.

And one of those worker-organizers was killed last year, Aminul Islam, and his body was found with signs of torture. And the workers at Rana Plaza knew there were cracks in the wall. The bank workers in the same complex were sent home. But the factory workers, the garment factory workers went into work because the, you know, granted the building owner told the factory owners it was safe to go in. But the factory owners are under a huge amount of pressure to keep open, to keep making their deadlines.

I'm certain had they called anyone of their international buyers and said we have a crack in the building, we think it's dangerous, we have to postpone, your order will be late, I'm sure any brand would have said, OK, fine. But the fact is that factory knows they can do that once, they're maybe not going to get the order the next time around.

BLOCK: They'll just take their business elsewhere.

GEARHART: Eventually.

BLOCK: Well, it does raise all sorts of questions about accountability at the corporate level, right? Because a lot of the big retailers, whose brands we might buy and look at the label and it says made in Bangladesh, wouldn't necessarily be contracting with that factory itself, right? There would be subcontractors in between. And I know, before, the retailers have said, we didn't know that these conditions existed. It's the subcontractors fault. So what do you do about that?

GEARHART: Ultimately, it's both the employer and the buyer. It can't just be one or the other. We're having a push right now to get the brands whose product was found in the Tazreen factory, the factory where more than 100 workers were killed last November in Bangladesh.

BLOCK: In the fire.

GEARHART: In the fire. We're trying to have those brands come forward and contribute to a compensation fund. And Wal-Mart, for example, said it wasn't an approved factory even though their branded product was found in the rubble of the factory. And - so there are two levels of where does this responsibility go. I mean, can Wal-Mart, in every case, ensure that a factory that's not approved is in their supply chain? Not the way their supply chains are currently constructed. And that's pretty much by design, really.

I mean, the apparel industry has gone abroad over the past three decades, and they've sought to distance themselves from the actual workers who are producing their product. What we're pushing for in Bangladesh is we're calling on all of the global brands, especially for the big three leaders - H&M, Wal-Mart, Gap - to sign a building and fire safety agreement, which is make a binding commitment to a transparent program that involves worker organizations, more rigorous inspections, ensuring the process of repairs happens and ensuring that workers aren't displaced in the process if there are cases where factories have to close.

BLOCK: Does the scale of the garment industry, as big as it is in countries such as Bangladesh, mean that the financial stakes are huge for these companies that they can't afford to, they feel, that they can't afford to take the time to fix safety problems such as in these plants, precisely for the reasons that you're talking about, that those customers are going to take their business elsewhere and that's a huge, huge financial hit.

GEARHART: It is a huge financial hit. And a lot of the factories are - especially the worst-constructed ones, they can often be living hand-to-mouth. But the Tazreen factory fire, the Ha-Meem factory fire that happened at the end of 2011, those were, by all accounts, decently-built buildings that, you know, looked like pretty good factories.

The fact that the fires happened and the workers weren't able to get out because of the bars from the window and things like that become this whole other dynamic where it's not necessarily about the construct of the building. It's also about the way the factory is being managed. I mean, in Tazreen the alarm went off, and the workers went to get up and leave and the manager said, no, it's a drill. Sit back down. So really fixing this deeper problem can't just be here's another rigorous inspection program. It needs to be hand and hand with both.

Here's another rigorous inspection program. And in addition, there's an industrial relations piece of it where the unions are at the table working on the solutions with the employers and with the brands.

BLOCK: Well, for a consumer looking at clothing labels, what should he or she know if she wants to make a socially responsible purchase? How do you do that?

GEARHART: For mainstream consumers, we really need to get people to become consumer activists. But we certainly don't want the brands leaving Bangladesh. That's not the point. The point is to clean up the industry, not to walk away from the mess.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Judy Gearhart. She's executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum. Judy, thanks for coming in.

GEARHART: Thank you.

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