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Bangladesh: Worker Health and Safety

Originally Appeared in Domini Funds' 2013 Annual Report

On March 25, 1911, a fire swept through the 8th-10th floors of the Asch Building in lower Manhattan, occupied by the Triangle Waist Company garment factory. This tragic event, which killed 146 young immigrant workers, helped spur the growth of unions and set in motion a series of legal reforms to protect U.S. garment workers from such preventable disasters.

More than 100 years later, however, garment workers around the world still face the same risks that led to that tragedy. The recent collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh was the worst disaster in the history of the apparel industry. The owners of the eight-story complex had illegally added three floors to the building, and although cracks had been seen in the walls the day before the collapse, the factory owner chose to ignore warnings and protests, and ordered workers into the building.

Unfortunately, Rana Plaza was no anomaly. Factory disasters claim the lives of countless workers around the world every year. In Bangladesh, more than 1,800 workers have been killed during the past eight years, and in the past eight months alone, approximately 130 Bangladeshi workers have lost their lives in factory fires.

Globally we have seen a continuous search for the lowest-cost facilities, but nowhere has this issue become as critical as it is in Bangladesh, where the apparel sector employs more than four million people, mostly women. The minimum wage in the country is $38.50 per month, less than half the wage paid in Cambodia and a quarter of the wage paid in China. According to the World Bank, as of 2010, Bangladesh ranked last in terms of minimum wages for factory workers. This race to the bottom has made Bangladesh the second-largest global apparel exporter, behind China. Adding to the problem is a history of weak labor unions and strong representation of factory owners in government. Roughly ten percent Bangladesh’s parliamentary seats are currently held by garment industry leader. The sector’s political influence has been, predictably, an obstacle to meaningful reform.

In the same way that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire brought attention to these issues in the United States a century ago, Rana Plaza has now brought attention to these issues globally. Below, we discuss several paths that companies have taken to improve worker health and safety, particularly in Bangladesh, where the issue has become most critical.

Factory Monitoring Efforts

When we began reaching out to companies to discuss supply-chain sweatshop issues in the mid-1990s, we heard a common refrain: “we don’t own these factories.” However, as responsible investors, consumer activists, students and other labor rights groups engaged with companies to discuss the advantages of taking on greater accountability, things began to change. Companies in a wide range of industries have since adopted codes of conduct for their suppliers and have instituted factory monitoring programs. Many have supplemented these efforts with training programs to educate workers and managers on factory safety and labor rights.  Some companies, like Gap, have recognized that a degree of responsibility also lies back at corporate headquarters, where cost-cutting initiatives and last-minute changes to orders can trigger overtime violations and increased pressures on factory managers to cut corners on safety.

It is clear, however, that these efforts have been insufficient to address systemic problems that persist in factories around the world, including excessive hours, forced labor, child labor and safety problems. Many multinational corporations report that they are serving a regulatory function with factory owners that should be played by government. While several leading companies have partnered with civil society organizations to find more lasting solutions, Rana Plaza has made it abundantly clear that more drastic and immediate action is needed.

Banning Production in Bangladesh

Global brands cannot police factory working conditions if they do not know where their clothes are being made. When a company places an order with a factory that meets its standards, it is not uncommon for that factory to ship the order to another factory without the buyer’s knowledge. This practice of unauthorized subcontracting is endemic in Bangladesh, where it is estimated that half of the nation’s roughly 5,000 factories are subcontractors. Even companies with rigorous monitoring programs risk finding their orders being produced at factories not on their approved list. Such was the case when several boxes of Disney sweatshirts were found at the Tazreen factory after a November fire that killed 112 workers.

Our relationship with the Walt Disney Company dates back to 1996, when we first encouraged the company to take greater responsibility over its supply chain. Since then, we have seen a dramatic evolution in its approach to these issues. In addition to providing feedback over the years on Disney’s code of conduct and audit program, we have also visited factories and participated in a hands-on project with Disney and McDonald’s to find a better path towards sustained factory compliance with labor standards.

Two months before Rana Plaza, Disney executives reached out to obtain our feedback on their plans to withdraw from Bangladesh. Disney permits licensing of its name and characters for production in more than 170 countries. While Bangladesh represented only a very small portion of its global sourcing, Disney believed it presented significant risks. Leaving Bangladesh could help the company reduce risk to its brand and allow it to focus efforts where it could most improve working conditions. Therefore, in March, Disney announced that Bangladesh had been removed from its “Permitted Sourcing Countries” list.

Some have accused Disney of “cutting and running,” a tactic that companies use to avoid accountability for sweatshop conditions, but we disagree with those accusations. Disney’s limited economic activity in Bangladesh would have afforded it little leverage with factory management, but by publicly withdrawing, it was able to exercise its leverage as a global brand to send a clear message. The Bangladeshi government needs to understand that substandard working conditions will have economic consequences if it does not take immediate action.

A Shift in Worker Safety Initiatives

For many companies, however, leaving Bangladesh is not a viable option. These companies instead must take a hands-on approach to reform.

In the wake of the collapse, several significant initiatives have arisen to improve worker safety issues. Most notable is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (the Accord)—a five-year, multi-stakeholder agreement between retailers, non-governmental organizations, and labor unions to maintain minimum safety standards in the Bangladesh textile industry. We believe that this initiative is the best hope for meaningful reform. As a legally-binding agreement, the Accord represents a significant shift from past practice. Its board of directors, which is chaired by the International Labor Organization (ILO), is split evenly between corporations and labor unions. We believe that this equal representation of trade unions is critical. Domini’s Global Investment Standards have always recognized that:

“Healthy and vital unions play a crucial role in addressing the imbalances in power that often arise between corporate management and workers in their struggle for fair working conditions. Without unions, the possibilities for long-term equal partnerships between management and labor would be vastly diminished.”

One Rana Plaza survivor told Time: “The managers forced us to return to work, and just one hour after we entered the factory the building collapsed…"  It was not simply lax regulations, political corruption and greed that led to these deaths—it was also fear. In order for desperately poor workers to stand up for themselves, they need strong labor unions.

To date, the Accord has been signed by more than 80 companies, primarily based in Europe. One of the first to sign was Hennes and Mauritz (H&M, Sweden). Over the past three years, we have seen impressive improvements in H&M’s approach to labor conditions in its supply chain. The company has advocated for increases to the minimum wage and for the adoption of a “living wage” standard, and has pledged to remain in Bangladesh even if wages rise.

Some of the other major global brands that have signed the Accord include Fast Retailing (Uniqlo, Theory), PUMA, Carrefour, Tesco, Next and Marks & Spencer. The decision to sign the Accord by Japan’s Fast Retailing, one of the world’s largest retailers, supplements an already impressive social profile, including its practice of publicly reporting the results of its factory audits and the remedial measures its takes. To date, only a handful of American companies, including PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger) and American Eagle Outfitters, have signed the Accord.

Domini Helps Lead Investor Response to Rana Plaza

In May, Domini worked with other investors affiliated with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) to draft a public statement urging global companies sourcing from Bangladesh to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety and to strengthen local trade unions, disclose suppliers, and ensure appropriate grievance and remedy mechanisms for workers.

More than 200 institutional investors from around the world, representing more than $3.1 trillion, signed our statement. The first 120 signatories came together in only 48 hours, a strong testament to the seriousness of this issue and the need for systemic reform (Read the investor statement).

Citing legal concerns with the Accord, a group of 20 North American retail companies, including Gap, Wal-Mart, Target, Macy’s, Nordstrom and Costco, announced another initiative—The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (“the Alliance”). While we favor the Accord over the Alliance because of its legally-binding nature and the role of labor unions in its governance structure, both initiatives represent an important shift in approach to worker safety issues. Both the Accord and the Alliance focus on bottom-line, critical reforms to address urgent fire and safety issues; both recognize the need for competitors to work together toward common solutions, to share the results of their factory inspections with each other, and to enforce common standards; both are committed to a level of public transparency; and both recognize the need for workers to have a voice.

Moving Forward

Domini is currently helping to coordinate a global investor coalition focused on factory safety in Bangladesh. In the coming months, as we follow developments with the Accord and the Alliance, we will turn careful attention to those apparel companies that have not signed up for either initiative.

Here are a few additional changes we will continue to push for, both in Bangladesh and around the world:

  • A global dialogue is needed about the definition and achievement of a sustainable living wage—sufficient for a worker to support a family and save for the future.
  • A social safety net should be provided for the families of workers who are injured or killed in the line of work.
  • The New York Times reports that children in Bangladesh can tell the latest fashion trend based on the color of the water in the canal that runs past their schoolhouse. The environmental consequences of global supply chains are significant and must be addressed.
  • We would like to see the Accord model, which incorporates cross-company information sharing, an active partnership with unions and a commitment to public transparency, become the norm for global supply chains everywhere.
  • While Bangladesh may be the flash point today, similar problems persist in other countries around the globe. It is our hope that the reforms sparked by Rana Plaza will reach beyond Bangladesh.

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Rozina Akter, a 21-year-old survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse, told the Wall Street Journal: "I'll go back to work as soon as I get better. Not all buildings will collapse." What other choice does she have?

Like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of another era, we hope to look back on Rana Plaza as a turning point for Bangladesh, and an end to the global “race to the bottom” that this poor country has come to symbolize. We hope that it will catalyze a new era of labor reforms that will provide young women like Ms. Akter with more acceptable and dignified choices. As investors, we will continue to do our part to bring that hope to fruition.