In the News
Practice What You Preach: How the US Government Can End Bangladesh's Factory Fires
By Bama Athreya
On Monday, the US Department of State issued a bold new statement urging US companies to do more to protect workers in Bangladesh. This attention comes in the wake of the tragic Tazreen factory fire in November 2012 that killed over 100 workers. Many of these workers leapt to their deaths from a building with no emergency exits. The factory was exposed throughout world media as producing goods for Walmart, Disney, Sears and Ikea.
Would it surprise you to learn that the factory was used by companies who make federal uniforms? Labor rights organizations were able to photograph labels in the factory wreckage linking Tazreen to two US government contractors.
The US government is an enormous consumer of apparel worldwide. According to SweatFree Communities the federal government procures over $500 billion in goods and services annually. Fully 25 percent of all US government employees wear some sort of uniform. SweatFree Communities estimates that federal, state and city governments spend $10 billion on clothing each year.
Military exchanges add even more volume to this picture. Military exchanges sell approximately $1.5 billion in clothing and footwear each year. And today, Bangladesh is the number one producer of this apparel.
The US government can practice what it preaches. It can lead the way in demonstrating a strong approach to protecting workers in uniform supplier factories worldwide. Here is what the US government can do to adhere to its own eight point plan:
1. Act Collectively:
Even the US government cannot go it alone. Europe sources a lot of clothing from Bangladesh, too- and provides a lot of aid to the country. Collaborate with international donors to pull in the same direction, and make sure aid dollars are used to ensure the Government of Bangladesh strengthens fire safety inspections in the factories, and strengthens legal remedies for workers who are affected by the tragic fires.
2. Develop Principles, Policies and Procedures for Implementation
Federal government contractors need to know what's required of them. Implement contract standards for foreign production facilities that cover international labor standards, including freedom of association, forced labor, child labor, non-discrimination; and strong health and safety protections.
3. Develop Credible Internal Benchmarks
Contract officers can ensure they are only awarding contracts to bidders who uphold the labor principles. We recommend a vendor prequalification program that rewards vendors who have a plan to ensure that their factories comply with the standards. A point system for vendor participation in a Responsible Manufacturer Program is one way to do this.
4. Independent Third-Party Verification
States and cities around the country have already started to use a Consortium for the necessary independent oversight over their apparel contracts. Federal government agencies also need to pool resources and create or join a truly independent oversight body to verify that contractor compliance plans are really being implemented.
5. Corrective Actions and Penalties
The US government needs to demonstrate to other buyers that when you find a problem, the best approach isn't simply to 'cut and run.' While contractors need to know that there will be sanctions if they do not comply with the policies, they also need to know that federal agencies will reward companies that immediately develop a remediation plan and correct violations in the factories.
6. Cultivate Worker Voice and Education
States and cities are already encouraging their contractors to work with trusted, local, community-based organizations to provide training to factory workers. The goal is to make improvements sustainable by giving workers a way to be a part of the solution.
7. Share Information
Transparency will be the key to the success of any approach. The US government needs to urge the Bangladesh government and all companies sourcing in Bangladesh to transparently share information about factory inspections, penalties and remediation plans and their implementation - and needs to commit to having its own contractors do the same.
8. Work with Stakeholders
The US government can lead the way- but cannot end sweatshops in Bangladesh on its own. Major brands sourcing clothing in Bangladesh need to follow the US government lead, instead of each staking out their own approach. The numerous private monitoring and certification groups that have crowded this space in recent years need to get out of the way, and recognize that competing for brands' business in Bangladesh will not help to solve the bigger challenges. They need to cede the space to the US government here. Consumer-facing advocacy groups need to provide consumers with information about which companies are following the leader, and which are refusing to play. And international NGOs and trade unions need to support community leaders within Bangladesh, and especially among workers themselves--since real change in Bangladesh will only happen when Bangladesh's own citizens demand it, and keep the pressure on their own government to sustain it.
Bama Athreya is a founding Board member of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium
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."
Anti-sweatshop law makes statement for San Francisco
In San Francisco, lawmakers often pass non-binding resolutions that stake out a position on national or international issues. The principled gesture of supporting or opposing a cause with just words can at times be noteworthy and admirable, but it is much more powerful when San Francisco takes a stance that actually will effect change.
It was 2005 when the Board of Supervisors adopted the Sweatfree Contracting Ordinance, a law meant to ensure that city and county agencies did not purchase linens that originated in sweatshops. The legislation, which was signed into law by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, was updated by a 2007 ordinance that allowed the evaluation of contracts to make sure the companies complied with the anti-sweatshop provisions.
The ordinance could have ended up as just another well-intentioned-but-toothless statement by San Francisco that contained grandiose ideals but became lost in a sea of bureaucracy. Thankfully, this issue did not slip into oblivion. A report started in early 2011 by the independent-rights-monitoring organization Worker Rights Consortium focused on a subcontractor to a company from which San Francisco purchased pants for jail inmates. The investigation, which was funded by San Francisco, documented a range of violations at a Dominican Republic factory, including underpayment of workers, sexual harassment and worker-safety issues.
San Francisco attempted to work with the company, Gardena-based Robinson Textiles, to resolve the workplace issues at the factory run by subcontractor ITIC Apparel. But instead of remedying the situation at the site, Robinson Textiles chose to end the contract with San Francisco, according to the chairman of the Sweatfree Procurement Advisory Group.
It turns out that San Francisco had only purchased about $1,100 worth of pants from the company, about 144 pairs, before the firm decided to call it quits. But that does not mean this is not a strong statement about the global workers’ rights. San Francisco has partnered with 11 other cities and three states in an attempt to multiply the financial impact once a company has been found not to be complying with fair labor standards. Although San Francisco’s contract with Robinson Textiles may not have been for a substantial amount, other municipalities should also be able to scrutinize their contracts with the company now that the report has been completed.
San Francisco should continue to probe the contractors that want to do business with the city or county. Every year, San Francisco buys about $2.6 million worth of textiles, such as pillows, blankets and clothing. This money can continue to make a statement by being withheld from any company that fails to support workers’ rights.