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Anger Over Garment Factory Disaster Fuels Annual Labor Rallies in Southeast Asia

May 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
After 400 people died in the collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory, workers in Southeast Asia marched to call for better working conditions and pay. Ray Suarez talks with Pietra Rivoli, professor at Georgetown University, and Time magazine's David Von Drehle about safety regulations in developing nations.
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GWEN IFILL: The deaths of more than 400 factory workers in Bangladesh hung over May Day protests in Asia today.

Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: Demands for higher pay and better working conditions brought out thousands of low-wage workers across Southeast Asia. They marched in Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

ATH THORN, Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union: For wages, we call on the new government to increase pay for all garment workers and for civil servants, police and military personnel.

ELMER LABOG, Chair, May First Movement: The change in the rotten system prevailing in society is really in the hands of the workers and ordinary people.

RAY SUAREZ: This year, the annual May Day rallies were fueled by outrage over the deadly collapse of an eight-story building in Bangladesh. The illegally built structure housed several garment factories that employed thousands of workers. The death toll has now passed 400, but it remains unclear how many are still missing.

Today, Bangladeshis filled the streets in the capital, Dhaka, carrying the memories of those lost in last week’s tragedy.

MOSHREFA MISHU, Labor Leader: The workers who were killed in the building collapse, we protest and we demand that the owner of the building be hanged and compensation should be given to the injured and those who died. A healthy and safe atmosphere should be made in the factories.

RAY SUAREZ: Officials also began burying dozens of victims who could not be identified.

Hundreds attended the mass funeral and burial, many covering their noses to combat the smell of the decomposing bodies. More mass burials are expected in the coming days. At the building site, heavy machinery has been brought in to remove the many tons of rubble that remain. Officials have given up on finding any more survivors. The focus now is on recovering the dead.

Meanwhile, the building owner is in custody. He left a court yesterday wearing a police helmet and bulletproof vest, following his second appearance in as many days. He’s one of eight people arrested thus far.

For more on working conditions in the developing world, I’m joined by Pietra Rivoli, an expert on the globalization of clothing manufacturing and a professor of finance and international business at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. And David Von Drehle is a journalist for TIME magazine. He wrote “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” a book about this country’s response to its own factory disaster.

Professor Rivoli as we saw, there were marches throughout South Asia. Is this work generally badly paid and dangerous?

PIETRA RIVOLI, Georgetown University: Well, I don’t think we can make a general conclusion about that.

There are good factories. There are good conditions. There are safe factories. And we have experience, though, at the other end of spectrum as well. And, of course, what happened last week was an example of conditions at the very bottom.

RAY SUAREZ: What has changed about the rules governing global trade? How did Bangladesh end up the home of the garment industry’s — it’s the second largest garment industry in the world.

PIETRA RIVOLI: That’s right.

In 2005, we did away with a system of apparel trade regulation in the United States that very tightly managed apparel imports into the country. And so we didn’t have a free market at that time. Instead, different countries were allowed to sell different quantities of clothing to the United States.

When those regulations were lifted, we went to a pure market system. Most of the production flowed to China. However, during in the past couple of years, wage rates in the apparel industry in China have shot up. They have doubled and in some areas even tripled. And so the production has moved to lower-cost areas such as Bangladesh.

So what happened really is, you have a tremendously rapid flow of production from one country to another. And certainly the infrastructure, the safety infrastructure, the construction infrastructure, the codes of conduct and so forth, they are scrambling to keep up.

RAY SUAREZ: David Von Drehle, we’re just a little century away from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire; 146 people, mostly young women, died in one afternoon.

Is there a rough parallel between places like Bangladesh and Cambodia and Malaysia today with what was going on in Lower Manhattan in 1911?

DAVID VON DREHLE, TIME: Absolutely, Ray.

Your other guest made a very good point and used terrific language when she talked about a runaway industry, with the government regulators sort of trying to catch up to them. That’s exactly what happened in the United States at the turn of the century, when the ready-to-wear garment industry, made-to-measure garment industry took off like a lightning bolt.

And suddenly we had factories all throughout New York, Philadelphia, Chicago that were churning out millions of dollars worth of clothing. And the governments were not prepared to deal with these new realities. And you had not just the Triangle fire, the most famous, but these kinds of factory disasters frequently happening.

And what I found as I studied the Triangle fire, which was a catalyst for change, is that the real driver is not sympathy or outrage at these terrible tragedies, which are definitely tragic, but the rising power of the workers, more education for workers, more power especially for women in the workplace.

And as they make — and more enfranchisement, opportunity to vote. These are the factors that drive out corruption and bring on in its place a respect for the lives of the human beings who do the work.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, given what David Von Drehle just described, these are young democracies where we saw these marches going on today. Could this be a similar galvanizing moment?

PIETRA RIVOLI: You know, I think that the Shirtwaist fire was certainly a tipping point in the U.S. industrial history. And there are tipping points all across the world in industrial history.

And I think it’s quite possible that this event last week will serve as a tipping point. But there are enormous challenges in the political infrastructure of Bangladesh. If you look at why that building was ever even built the way it was, you know, the root causes have to do with corruption at the local level, with systems of graft.

You have just kind of mob bosses in charge at the local political level. So there’s a tremendous amount of cleaning up of the political infrastructure that needs to happen before people’s political voices can be effective.

RAY SUAREZ: David, is there also a risk here for the workers if things are tightened up, if there are better conditions in the factories, if wages are raised? Is there a chance that you are taking that international producers will head to even lower-cost places, if you can find them left on planet Earth?

DAVID VON DREHLE: This is the great paradox of more developed economies trying to influence this process, because the reason that there were so many workers in that factory laboring under such appalling conditions is that there’s desperate poverty in Bangladesh.

And they are actually working their way up into those jobs, if you can believe it. Same was true in the United States 100 years ago. Those workers in the Triangle factory were there because it was a good job compared to the alternatives.

So, what we have to find in the United States and other developed countries is ways to pressure our retailers, our manufacturers, our brands to engage, perhaps, with these issues of corruption that the professor talked about, which is so important. We who live under the rule of law tend to take it for granted. It is a huge engine for our safety, our protection, our economic freedom.

And that’s what we need to be exporting to these countries, along with low-wage jobs.

RAY SUAREZ: David Von Drehle, Professor Rivoli, thank you both.

DAVID VON DREHLE: Thank you.

PIETRA RIVOLI: Thank you very much.