Robert J. S. Ross

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