IT HAS been more than a year since Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing 1,138 garment industry workers who had been crammed into an unsafe building. American and European retailers promised to insist on better conditions in the factories they buy from. But they still have a long way to go: A consortium of European companies announced last week that they found more than 80,000 safety problems in the 1,106 factories they inspected since the Rana Plaza disaster. More than a tenth of the facilities were so bad that they required immediate retrofitting for production to proceed — or even evacuation.
The clothing industry has largely been a blessing for Bangladesh, a densely populated country with huge amounts of spare workers seeking employment. Actual per capita gross domestic product and actual income have doubled since 1997, in part because the country established itself as a center of ready-to-wear apparel manufacturing. Trade accounts for more than half of the country’s gross domestic product, up from a third over the same period. The country faces increasing competition from neighbors, but its $22 billion garment manufacturing business remains a crucial global production hub.
That is why discussions about boycotting firms that do business in Bangladesh or punishing the country with trade restrictions were counterproductive. Demands for worker safety should not become a pretext for protectionism, which would hurt the masses of poor who would be put out of jobs. But growing trade and decent conditions are not incompatible: There is no excuse for forcing workers into fire traps or structurally unsound towers such as Rana Plaza.
Primary responsibility lies with Bangladesh leaders, who should enforce existing standards, crack down on fly-by-night operators and provide the predictability that promotes investment. But Western retailers have a role, too — to use their massive market power to demand better of their suppliers. At least some firms seem serious about doing so, whether out of concern for workers, their own corporate image or maybe both; we wouldn’t presume to guess. Two major groups of companies have entered into legally binding safety inspection programs, through which independent safety protocols have been developed and an initial round of inspections has been completed. Accord, a European group, is the one that reported its results last week.
The test will be whether further disasters are prevented by the new regime. Rana Plaza should have been caught by earlier safety programs touted by Western retailers; the building’s tragic collapse exposed the protocol as an ineffective and ultimately self-defeating ethical whitewash. Large companies such as Gap and H&M have promised their customers better. Those customers have every right and responsibility to demand that the promises not prove hollow.