On American Retailers and the Bangladesh Disasters


American clothing retailers should put up or shut up

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

May 23, 2013

By Robert J.S. Ross

The death of over 1,100 workers in the Bangladesh garment factory collapse now poses a stark challenge to North American brand name clothing makers and retailers. All of them have codes of conduct that claim concern for worker health and safety, including among those they term their business partners — the contractor factories where their clothing is actually made. The moment has come to discover whether these codes are mere window dressing designed to lull to sleep consumers with a conscience or whether the firms care to alleviate a deathtrap factory environment.


The codes of ethical conduct that each brand puts forward have failed to prevent thousands of deaths in Bangladesh alone. My students and I have collected data on the internationally reported fires concentrating on the large mortality cases since 2000. Some NGO partners have collected data going back to 1990. More than 2,000 deaths have been recorded in fires and collapses in these decades and, for the recent ones we have studied, every single one has included purchasers who claimed health and safety standards for their workers and business partners. A simple conclusion is called for by the evidence: Voluntary codes of conduct, self-policed and self-audited, are not working. At risk are almost 5 million garment workers in Bangladesh.


Now, about 40 European and other global retailers, including the very largest and those that specialize in low price, e.g., H&M, C&A and Primark, have signed a binding agreement to monitor safety, to fund inspections, to empower workers to be part of the monitoring and to refuse to work in obviously dangerous situations. This last is critical: On the morning of April 24 as workers gathered outside the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, they were reluctant to enter the building. Cracks in the walls had caused the first-floor retailers and a bank to remain closed. Their employers forced them to enter, threatening them with docking a month’s pay and, in one account, threatening them physically. If those workers had union protection or the rights in the current agreement, the 1,100 lives would have been spared.


Among American retailers, only PVH (which owns Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Izod among other brands) and Abercrombie and Fitch have signed the agreement. Wal-Mart and the Gap — among the biggest buyers from Bangladesh — have refused. Wal-Mart has flatly refused to sign a “binding” agreement, and the Gap has said it wants to do so but needs to make it less binding.


The North American giants are in danger of rebranding themselves as international scofflaws and the negligent protectors, witting or not, of reckless deathtraps.


The European low-price, family-fashion and fast-fashion stores and brands have agreed with Bangladeshi, global labor and NGO parties to a major advance in worker safety. Already, firms that engage over 20% of Bangladeshi capacity have joined the pact. Their agreement is an indicator that they realize they can’t go on as they have in Bangladesh’s low-cost, low-care environment.


Now it is time for the American brands to step up. Bangladesh is the world’s cheapest place to manufacture clothing. The big brands have been claiming that they can maintain or improve standards in that environment by imposing their own codes of conduct on suppliers. That has failed. How many more lives must be lost before Wal-Mart, Sears, Gap and JC Penney and the other American firms that use Bangladeshi workers recognize that those workers’ lives are worth more than T-shirts?


Robert J.S. Ross is a professor of sociology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and author of “Slaves to Fashion: poverty and abuse in the new sweatshops.” He appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio on Wednesday, discussing why U.S. retailers are backing out of the Bangladesh Safety Agreement. Email rjsross@clarku.edu


Ralph Lauren and the Olympic Uniforms (from the LA Times)


Hey, Ralph Lauren, sweatshops aren’t chic
Olympic gear shouldn’t come from such factories — ours or theirs.
By Robert J.S. Ross

July 19, 2012

Ralph Lauren, the crown prince of preppy, received more than $30 million in compensation in 2011 from the corporation he founded and of which he and his family control about 73%. He is on the Forbes list of billionaires. The Ralph Lauren firm physically produces nothing: It is a design, marketing and licensing operation that hires factories to make its stuff. The company has had the U.S. Olympic team deal since 2008. A men’s team shirt costs $425 and a woman’s skirt $498. The beret that makes the athletes look like recruits for the U.S. Special Forces and a T-shirt each cost $55. Perhaps it is the high unemployment rate or the in-your-face patriotism induced by an election year, but the news that Lauren’s prep-chic outfits are made in China has produced a rare bipartisan storm of criticism.

Lost in the wind of words is what should be central to the question of sourcing: conditions for the workers. If China’s workers were sharing in the full fruits of growth, we would have a much smaller volume of American clothing made there. As it is, more than 98% of the dollar value of the Ralph Lauren clothing line is made abroad, much of it in China.

Without more disclosure from the company as to which firms and factories make its goods, we can know only that Chinese apparel workers earn, officially, somewhere between 93 cents to just over $1 an hour; unofficially, they are often paid less than the official minimum, which varies by province and city. Days off are rare, despite laws that entitle them to one day off a week. A late 2011 investigation by China Labor Watch of factories producing for major American brands found employees who said they worked 30 days a month. There is a reason for this: Because wages fall so far behind rising living costs, workers need overtime pay to survive.

Many other abuses are common in China’s export factories. Workers are housed in dorms where conditions are often crowded and the food poor. The first month’s wages are often withheld, so if the workers quit because of bad conditions, they must forfeit a month’s wages. There is no right to form independent unions in China; only theCommunist Party’sAll-China Federation of Trade Unions is permitted, and it is usually a part of management, not responsible (or even known) to the workers. Exhaustion haunts the factory floors of China’s export sector, and since last year, allegations of suicides caused by desperation have received worldwide attention.

Ralph Lauren now says it will produce its 2014 Winter Olympics uniforms in the United States — immediately giving the lie to those who shrugged off the complaints by saying we can’t make this stuff here. There are 160,000 U.S. apparel industry workers who would love to have the chance to prove the naysayers wrong.

In the meantime, Ralph Lauren and the U.S. Olympic Committee could do some simple things to remove the shadow over their respective images. The company could disclose the locations where the Olympic teams’ clothing is made. It could invite the premier workers’ rights monitoring institution, the Worker Rights Consortium, to inspect these factories. It could agree to abide by the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium’s Model Code of Conduct, which has three states (Maine, New York and Pennsylvania) and 16 cities (including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Seattle) committed to fair competition through sweatshop-free purchasing. (Full disclosure: I am an unpaid member of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium board of directors and an unpaid member of the Advisory Committee to the Worker Rights Consortium.) The U.S. Olympic Committee, as a quasi-public body, could join one or both consortiums to make sure its logo gear is sweatshop free, wherever it is made.

Olympic athletes will wear their gear at the peak of world attention, clothed by a billionaire’s company hired by a committee of notables. Toiling at the bottom of the pyramid, for meager pay and under terrible conditions, are those who cut, sew, press and pack the clothing. “Faster, Higher, Stronger”: The Olympic motto might be a good pledge for improved labor conditions in the world’s sweatshops.

Robert J.S. Ross, a professor of sociology and director of the International Studies Stream program at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is the author of “Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.”

Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times

Remembering MayDay

MAY DAY 2012: REMEMBERING WHY Robert J.S. Ross, rjsross@clarku.edu The story of May Day begins with the struggle to make the eight-hour workday the legal and economic norm for wageworkers. In the older industrial countries, this struggle was largely successful, … Continue reading

Bread and Roses: Dignity and Respect in Working Class Struggles

Wednesday, September 7, 2011
From This week in Sociology
Bread and Roses: Dignity and Respect in Working Class Struggles
by Robert J. S. Ross, Clark University, Professor of Sociology

On January 11, 1912 a group of Polish women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts discovered that their employer had cut their total wages as a consequence of a Massachusetts law which had cut the legal work week from 56 to 54 hours. The next day, January 12, workers in the American Woolen Company Mills also found that their wages had been cut. Prepared for the events by weeks of discussion and debate, they walked out. Upon their exit began an iconic American strike.

“The strikers wanted not only decent pay, but a chance to enjoy the good things of life. They carried signs saying, “We want bread and roses too!” ”

Ralph Fasanella: “Lawrence,1912:The Bread and Roses Strike

Thus states one of the 97,600 websites that Google reports joining the phrases “bread and roses strike” with women. 1.9 million sites join bread and roses with Lawrence.

The strike involved about 25,000 workers – almost all of them immigrants and many of them women. Working conditions and life in the mills and neighborhoods of Lawrence were grinding and miserable. From January to March the workers endured repression and hardship. Martial law and militias were arrayed against them, including the use of armed Harvard University students. In the end they won wage and other concessions that would last for a few years, though were not permanent. And eventually most mills left New England and moved to non-union states in the South (1920s and 1930s) before moving again overseas in search of even cheaper labor and fewer environmental and other restrictions.

A poem by the radical writer James Oppenheim is often cited as having been inspired by the Lawrence strike. It includes the lines:

“Our lives shall not be sweated, from birth until life closes; Hearts starve as well as bodies; Give us bread and give us roses.”


“Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.

Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!”

But scholar Jim Zwick has shown that the poem was published in 1911 – before the strike, and was probably inspired by Chicago events.(Zwick 2002, 2003)  In 1996 Gerald Sider found that no photo of strikers, their marches or pickets showed the “bread and roses” phrase on a picket sign.  No pamphlet in the Lawrence public library files has the phrase. No real time news article reports the phrase being used.

Some of the labor historians confronted with Sider’s work argued that perhaps the phrase was from the Italian radical poet Arturo Giovannitti, a Lawrence strike leader, and that it appeared in Italian.  But a young history student showed years ago that Giovannitti never used the phrase “pan e rose” in his published work during or after the strike.

A reasonable conclusion, bearing in mind the difficulty in proving something didn’t happen, is that the slogan does not stem from the strike, but rather is a constructed memory. From the troubadour Utah Phillips through to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities to many trade union publications, and on tens of thousands of websites, the Roses of the Bread and Roses Strike stand for  those dimensions of labor and working class aspirations that embrace needs that are aided but not summarized by the ascent toward material decency.

Through the years sweatshop workers’ complaints are instructive.  They complain of abusive language, sexual harassment, and of miserable sanitary facilities.(See inter alia Ross 2004,  Chapter One)  They complain of being called dogs and being treated like dogs.  When workers resist this treatment they almost always articulate the twinning of material demands with claims to dignity and respect.  The picket signs carried by the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, in 1968, just before Martin Luther King was killed, said simply “I AM a man”.

The memory of the 1912 strike is constructed of our hopes and aspirations. The historian Ardis Cameron suggests that the idea of the Lawrence strike as a fight for bread and roses is as Harney put it “an example of a “wrong” story which communicates a “right” message.” One definition of a myth is, “a traditional tale with … partial reference to something of collective importance”. (Burkert 1982:23)  A view of legend includes “a symbolic representation of folk belief and collective experiences and serving as a reaffirmation of commonly held values of the group to whose tradition it belongs.”(Tangherlini 1990:85)

Our effort today is to reveal just how important dignity and respect are in labor  movements and working class struggles. So important, that we construct legendary histories to instruct ourselves and those who come after us.


  • Burkert, Walter 1982. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. University of California Press.
  • Ross, Robert J.S. 2004. Slaves to Fashion:  poverty and abuse in the new sweatshops. Ann Arbor. University of Michigan Press.
  • Sider, Gerald M. “Cleansing History: Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Strike for Four Loaves of Bread and No Roses, and the Anthropology of Working-class Consciousness,” Radical History Review, No. 65 (1996): 48-83, and comments by Paul Buhle (pp. 84-90), Ardis Cameron (pp. 91-97), David Montgomery (pp. 98-102), and Christine Stansell (pp. 103-107), and a reply to the comments by Sider (pp. 108-117).
  • Tangherlini, Timothy. 1990. “‘It Happened Not Too Far from Here…': A Survey of Legend Theory and Characterization” Western Folklore 49.4:371-390.
  • Zwick, Jim. 2002. “Bread and Roses: The Lost Histories of a Slogan and a Poem.” Originally published online at http://www.boondocksnet.com/labor/history/index.html but the site, created by Zwick ended after his death (2008).  I have a cached copy and will send it to scholars upon request. Similar material is available in Zwick., 2003.
  • Zwick, Jim. 2003. “Behind the Song: Bread and Roses.” Sing Out! 46 (Winter 2003): 92-93.

Struggles at the bottom of the pyramid [unpublished] June 2009

In the midst of the last Great Depression, in 1933, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins said: “The red silk bargain dress in the shop window is a danger signal. It is a warning of the return of the sweatshop, a challenge to us all to reinforce the gains we have made in our long and difficult progress toward a civilized industrial order.”

Depressions wreak havoc on labor standards. As unemployment grows workers become less able to turn down offers of jobs – even at substandard wages – and employers enjoy more leverage with their existing workers.  Benefits are taken back, raises are deferred or wages are cut. Legal residents and citizens now out of work will “drop down” in the labor market; competition for low wage jobs will increase.

Many of the jobs that now pay low but legal wages are considered unskilled or semi-skilled – and many are really hard. Today’s immigrants, legal as well as undocumented are a large fraction of low wage workers – about 14 per cent of the US labor force, but 20 per cent of low wage workers., according to a 2003 study by the Urban Institute. Both native born workers and immigrants will experience pressure on their living standards as unemployment increases and endures. The restaurant workers and janitors and retail clerks –who earn $11/hr and below — will have to fight hard to keep their heads above water.  Middle income workers will experience their living standards as sliding downwards.

Some will identify the source of their difficulties as fellow workers. Blaming immigrants or minority groups was the unhappy choice of some in the 1930s, like Father Coughlin, the radio priest from Michigan – who then blamed Jews for the Depression and admired Hitler’s “solution.” Others will try to address their job problems by joining together – in unions and politics.  In either case the coming days will see struggles at the bottom of the pyramid.

As there was 75 years ago, there is also a change in public mood, more sympathy for labor, and a more sympathetic administration.  President Obama has appointed official to the Dept. of Labor (both the Secretary and people under her) who are historically advocates of labor law enforcement.  We can hope that the proposed budget’s addition of almost 300 labor law enforcers will rein in the blatant violations of the minimum wage law and overtime abuses that have characterized the recent past.

One of the most important ways that conditions at the bottom of the pyramid were improved in the 20th Century was through the birth of the modern labor movement.  Now more than ever wage workers need each other and their freedom of association to combat the pressures of the unforgiving market.  But the law that “freed” the labor movement in the 1930s – labor’s Magna Carta – the Wagner Act of 1935, needs, as do many 75 year-olds, more teeth.  The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) will allow unions to more easily be formed and it will press employers to come to terms with unions that gain legal recognition.  The difference in pay for union v. nonunion restaurant workers could be about 25%, for janitors as much 50%.

Even in white collar occupations the pressures on wages and benefits is mounting. At the middle of the pyramid the same rule holds as at the bottom:   As we enter a period of hard times the way out is together, the way down is division.




Workers’ Wages in China and Bangladesh

Author’s note:  this letter made the NYT website, but not the grown-up newspaper. link »

July 23, 2010
Workers’ Wages in China and Bangladesh
To the Editor:
Re “As Labor Costs Rise in China, Textile Jobs Shift Elsewhere” (front page, July 17):

We are seeing the positive side of Chinese factory workers’ recent revolts.

What is now becoming clear is that Chinese workers’ successful demands have given workers across the world room for hope. Bangladeshi workers are demanding higher wages, too.

Bangladeshi employers have long kept wages down by threatening workers with loss of employment because of their competition with China. But now Chinese raises can make some room for workers’ demands elsewhere, and they put some pressure on employers as well. A doubling of wages might yield 5 percent price increases here — not bad after years of price declines.

Bangladesh can learn from China in this decade and the United States in the 1930s: boosting their own workers’ buying power is the path to growth and recovery.

Robert J. S. Ross
Worcester, Mass., July 21, 2010

The writer is a professor of sociology at Clark University and the author of “Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.” 

Bangladesh and the Triangle Fires: Exporting fires from rich to poor


Bangladesh and the Triangle Fires:  Exporting fires from rich to poor

100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sordid parallel exists across the globe
Laws and enforcement needed in trade agreements 

On March 25 we will observe the centennial of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York’s Washington Square, where 146 men and women garment workers died, trapped behind locked exits or jumping to their deaths from ninth-floor windows as horrified bystanders  looked on helplessly from below.

With one hundred years and few differences in conditions, a sordid parallel exists today,   most recently played out near Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a fire broke out on the top floors of a factory in which about 13,000 people worked. With exits locked, at least twenty-nine workers died; some after jumping from windows.

News of the garment factory in Bangladesh comes as part of a deadly drumbeat of similar reports stretching over at least a decade.  Bangladesh has joined China, Indonesia, Vietnam and India as a large volume, low wage export platform for clothing.  Bangladesh exports about $12.5 billion of clothing annually, and this composes three-quarters of its export earnings. What distinguishes Bangladesh though is its recent history of factory fires.

In the years after the Triangle Fire, workers were able to form unions and to create political alliances that reformed factory safety and provided for minimum wages and overtime protections. The era of the U.S. sweatshop drew to close by 1940.  But the modern epidemic of factory fires in Bangladesh – and in other developing areas – are a manifestation of the ways that global competition has undercut safety and wage standards.

In effect, the rich world has exported its factory fires to the developing world. An exaggeration? Here is a preliminary view of data I have been collecting on Bangladesh fires: In 2005 there were ten garment or textile factory fires reported by the international press. At least 110 lives were lost, 77 of them in one large fire. Hundreds of injuries resulted. Most of these fires appeared to have been due to electrical faults.

In the United States, clothing workers’ unions made factory sanitation and safety issues central to their demands. From the time of the Triangle fire in 1911 through the era of Progressive reform and then during the New Deal of the Thirties they succeeded. In Bangladesh workers have been fighting for both safety and paltry increases in minimum wages.  They recently won a raise from $25 to $43/month – but employers are not paying the new level.) Bangladeshi workers face a far more daunting task than the Americans from 1911 to 1940 did – global competition. Their employers threaten them with the specter of losing jobs to China or Vietnam or India. And these employers are ruthless in their suppression of rights of association. The International Labor Rights Foundation named the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) among the “Scrooge of the Year Worst Companies” of 2010 for squelching workers’ right to associate.

Many Americans think that corporate social responsibility or codes of conduct can successfully address this kind of problem.  But the Bangladesh fires have been continuing for a long time – for example, two fires alone in 2000 are reported to have killed 57 people.  Throughout this time the well-known brands and retailers have continued to source in swelling volume from Bangladesh – even as their codes of conduct state that safe and healthful conditions are part of the obligations of their contractors. Put simply, protecting workers with voluntary codes of corporate conduct  is an idea way past its expiration date.

The U.S. and European campaigners against sweatshop conditions and their partners among workers’ organizations in the developing world are converging on solutions. I recommend one old fashioned one: law enforcement. Make good laws a condition of trade agreements and make good law enforcement a condition of trade.

In Chains at the Bottom of the Pyramid : Gender and Sweated Labor in Global Apparel Production

Published on the blog site This week in Sociology
OCTOBER 25, 2011
Robert J.S. Ross – Clark University

Sweatshop conditions refer to long hours, low wages and oppressive conditions – dangerous unhealthy, psychologically abusive or squalid. In the global assembly line that often means a woman worker is doing the job.

In the apparel industry, as an example, a majority of the production employees are female. These include the very large number of all apparel workers who are sewing machine operators.    At the bottom of the pyramid of power and money, these workers toil for wages that often cannot support their livelihood – forcing families to send more workers, including children out into the economy to pool enough money to survive. The social science concept here is that of social reproduction:  if a wage does not cover the costs of the workers existence and of the creation of the next generation of workers (children, their education and sustenance, etc) then the employer and industry enjoy a subsidy from unpaid labor of social reproduction.

Ion much of the global apparel industry, for example, throughout Central America, the minimum wage for apparel workers is less the one-third of what it takes to support a family.  Wages in Asia are so much lower than that that jobs are lost in Central America in favor even cheaper labor elsewhere.

There are an number of factors that allow this situation to continue, including the highly competitive structure of the industry. Hardly any of the brand names in today’s market own their own factories; instead, more or less anonymous contractor factories do the cutting and sewing, and there is an abundance of them. The business is like a bunch of scorpions in a bottle –but the big brands and retailers hold the glass stopper!


Patriarchy and gender roles at the bottom of the pyramid

Women who take jobs in sweatshops most usually do so voluntarily – in the sense that there is rarely physical coercion or threat of violence that recruits them to or keeps them on the job.

However  coerced labor is a frequent if not a common occurrence among migrant workers.  For example contract workers recruited in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to work in Jordanian garment factories have their passports taken, are kept under restrictive physical conditions, and in a couple of factories subject to sexual harassment and rape. Chinese migrant workers’ first month’s pay is kept as security on their yearlong contracts making the cost of escape from bad jobs the surrender of a month’s pay. In a notorious case, Chinese owners created clones of Chinese migrant workers’ dorms in the US Commonwealth of the Marianas (Guam) and were eventually found guilty of holding indentured labor.

In more normal or formally regulated labor markets, traditional cultural and status norms may constrain the nature of women workers’ choices such that they yield up their labor power for less than they might otherwise obtain as more nearly free agents.

For example, Chinese women in New York’s Chinatown may be instructed by fathers or husbands to accept work only within the neighborhood – both a protective and a controlling motivation. Restricting the options for work, inevitably, in a market economy, will restrict earning power.

Given the triple burden of childcare, home-making, and paid work, sweatshops shops may permit practices that make concessions to women’s roles as caretakers. Employers may allow young children to stay with mothers; hours of work may be suspended at mealtimes and resumed at night.

Another norm among migrants and immigrants – often but not always gender-linked – is the practice or requirement of seeking jobs with kin. This is related to the broader practice of seeking jobs with co-ethnics or employers from the workers’ home town or province. The literature on ethnic entrepreneurs sometimes praises  such employers pointing out their competitive advantage in so-called ethnic niche markets. This becomes less attractive from the point of view at the bottom of the pyramid:  they are able to exploit vulnerable and immobile labor as a means of lowering costs in relation to potential competitors. When the potential workers do not speak the language or dialect of the host city or country the advantage of the co-ethnic employer is clear, while the disadvantage of the worker in seeking more nearly advantageous employment is also clear.

For young and unmarried women, given restricted labor market options, the opportunity to earn cash outside of unpaid household work may be a relatively liberating experience. Expected to labor for fathers or older brothers at home, cash jobs, of even low standards, may be quite appealing. This then is a rich paradox:  but it is no more so than the birth of capitalism itself. To become a wage worker – a “wage slave” as the radical turn of the 20th century union, the IWW once put it—is a step up from serfdom and legally coerced labor. Miserable wages are a step up from – usually an addition to –unpaid household labor.

Gender norms and cultural practices facilitate exploitation. These include all those practices of co-ethnicity, and extended family ties that restricting choice for the prospective female employee. The contrast between the availability of cash compared to unpaid household labor may dampen the pain of low pay and long hours. The assignment of some tasks to women – sewing –and others to men – cutting and pressing – recruits for the largest work category those for whom it is customary to pay less. It has become culturally chic to repeat the phrase popularized by Mao Tse-Tong: women hold up half the sky.  Even notorious sweatshop-defenders, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn use the phrase.  Perhaps we need a new version:  women carry half the pyramid of power and exploitation on their backs. Maybe more.