By Ed Rutkowski
San Antonio (June 4, 2014) — Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, catalogued the global apparel industry’s extensive list of unsafe working conditions in garment factories during his General Session address this morning at AIHce 2014. Nova added significant detail to the grim picture of worker safety in the industry, particularly in Bangladesh, where economic and political pressures have exacerbated longstanding safety problems to a greater extent than in other countries.
Three of the four worst workplace disasters in the apparel industry have occurred during the last 2 years, Nova said. Two of these tragedies, the Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013, which resulted in more than 1,100 deaths, and the Tazreen factory fire in December 2012, which killed 100 workers, happened in Bangladesh. The others are the September 2012 Ali Enterprises factory fire in Pakistan and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York, which launched the modern workplace safety movement in the United States.
“The question we are confronted with is, How is it possible with all of our knowledge that workers are dying en masse more than a century after Triangle Shirtwaist?” Nova said.
Underlying the current worker safety problem in apparel factories are economic conditions that have given rise to cutthroat competition, Nova said. The bulk of apparel manufacturing is done by workers in low-wage countries. Factories are mostly contract suppliers who have short-term relationships with global apparel brands. A typical contract lasts until a specific order is fulfilled, and factories have no guarantees that they will receive a new contract. Factory owners have little leverage to compete for contracts other than lowering wages—apparel workers in Bangladesh make the equivalent of 31 cents an hour.
“It is the rock-bottom cheapest place in the world to make a shirt or a pair of pants,” Nova said.
Exacerbating these problems is a near-complete lack of enforcement of existing fire safety and building codes and regulations. Nova said that nearly all factories in Bangladesh lack proper fire separation and fire doors on exit stairwells. Other problems include poor electrical wiring in places where raw cloth is stored in bulk. Often, extra floors are added to buildings whose columns are insufficient to support the added weight.
This was the cause of the Rana Plaza disaster. Nova said that workers had noticed cracks in the building, but on the morning of the collapse managers threatened to fine frightened workers a month’s pay or to fire them if they did not enter the factory.
Less than an hour later, the building’s columns failed, and 1,100 workers were crushed to death.
Nova is a representative of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an independent, legally binding agreement among companies and unions that have committed to higher safety standards. Under terms of the Accord, qualified safety inspectors have examined more than 500 Bangladeshi factories and ordered 16 temporary closures while the buildings are made safe, Nova said.
A follow-up to Nova’s AIHce presentation will be held at the AIHA Fall Conference in Washington, D.C., Oct. 18–22, when a representative of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, an agreement among a group of North American apparel companies and retailers, will present an alternative perspective.
Ed Rutkowski is managing editor of periodicals for AIHA and editor in chief of The Synergist.