Bangladesh fire shows the price of cheap clothes

May 7, 2013

The May 2 editorial [“Catastrophe in Bangladesh”] on the tragedy in Bangladesh fell short on two points.

First, it did not address the failure to vigorously enforce the “labor standards” provisions of the various free-trade agreements that the United States has entered into over decades. This failure has allowed the proliferation of substandard, poorly monitored factories such as Rana Plaza, where cracks were ignored and fire-safety doors were locked. 

Second, the editorial argued that the jobs created by these agreements have allowed workers in Bangladesh (and, by inference, elsewhere in the region) to enjoy raised living standards and provided them with much-needed “access to jobs.” Yes, if $37 per month were a satisfactory moral balance sheet justifying our bargain-driven desire for cheap goods regardless of the ethical price paid. 

These underpaid and unprotected workers are doing jobs that used to be done in the United States at better pay and with better benefits. Unions were a significant force here in ensuring that safety standards were met and that fair pay was received. This important role is one that multinationals want to avoid by moving jobs elsewhere. 

Shame on us for elevating bargain clothing prices over respect for the rights of the people who sew these garments both abroad and here. 

Mary K. O’Melveny, Washington

The writer is general counsel for the Communications Workers of America.

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