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Making Work Safety a Priority in Clothing Industry in Pakistan and Bangladesh

December 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Bangladesh has one of the fastest growing apparel industries with exports estimated to triple by 2020, reaching as much as $42 billion. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times about why safety conditions are not improving for workers even as profits increase in nations such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
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TRANSCRIPT

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more on all this, we turn to Steven Greenhouse, who covers labor and workplace issues for The New York Times.

Thanks for being with us.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE, The New York Times: Nice to be here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Steven, bring us up to speed. After that fire, there were some documents an activist group had put out which seemed to indicate some retailers who were unwilling to pay for some of the safety upgrades.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes, Hari.

Documents came out from a meeting that was held last year in Bangladesh. It was a meeting called by the government and by the Bangladesh manufacturers association that was urging those giant Western retailers like The Gap, like Wal-Mart to like step up to the plate and agree to pay more for their apparel, so that the Bangladesh manufacturers can improve the fire safety and electrical safety in their plants.

And the minutes of this meeting show that Wal-Mart and The Gap opposed that step. And a lot of labor rights groups have since — have in the past week or two really hammered Wal-Mart and The Gap for not being willing to spend more to improve fire safety.

And the companies say it just would have cost too much. We’re in a very competitive business. Our customers like low-cost products. And we’re just not going to spend the money.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there an idea of how much that would have cost? What are we talking about? Maybe — I know that clothes are at different prices, but any percentage?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The percentages I have seen, Hari, are just like a half or 1 percent of the total cost of the apparel exported from Bangladesh each year.

About $19 billion worth of apparel is exported each year from Bangladesh. It’s the world’s second largest apparel exporter after China.

And it’s growing very fast, largely because it has the lowest minimum wage of any country that’s really exporting apparel to any sizable degree; $37 a month is the minimum wage there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, you also pointed to over the weekend a more devastating fire in Pakistan. It’s kind of started to lead to this maze of contractors and subcontractors. And that seems to be standard operating business, where an American company could be well-intentioned, but ultimately they don’t know who is actually producing what’s on the ground.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes, I have written several articles on these fires with my colleagues Declan Walsh in Pakistan and Jim Yardley in Bangladesh, and we found that time after time the retailers, the subcontractors, they’re all asserting, we didn’t know about it. We didn’t know that subcontractors of the subcontractors were using these plants.

And they say, you can’t blame us. And I think many people call that plausible deniability. A lot of labor rights groups are saying, retailers, subcontractors, you have to really step up to the plate. You have to make sure that these factories are safe. You can’t blame it on subcontractors and say, I didn’t know.

There’s this international effort now led by some labor rights groups and by the PVH Phillips — the company that owns Phillips-Van Heusen and Tommy Hilfiger, that several companies are willing to spend the money to improve factories, have an international monitor to guarantee, to inspect the plants to make sure that’s safe, they’re safe. If the monitor finds that the plants are not safe, then the companies would undertake the investments to make sure they’re safe.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you were also pointing to something that was interesting I didn’t know, which was this entire community of verification inspection monitoring.

It seems, as these retailers have subcontracted out, it seems that these verification monitoring services are also doing the same?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes. This system, Hari, is broken in many, many ways. The governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan are not really doing what needs to be done to inspect the plants the ensure for safety.

So, this kind of voluntary industry-backed set of monitoring has become quite popular. But a lot of critics say these monitoring groups are just not doing good enough a job.

In Pakistan, at the plant where 262 workers died, Ali Enterprises in Karachi, the — you know, Social Accountability International, which has this, you know, this wonderful-sounding monitoring system, farmed that out to the RINA Group, an Italian company.

And RINA then hired this monitor in Pakistan. And a lot of folks in Pakistan say that this independent monitor, this monitoring company in Pakistan wasn’t nearly rigorous enough and that the Ali Enterprises plant, an auditor I interviewed who had gone to that plant three different times said every time he went there, he found a locked fire exit.

And we will remember from our history books in seventh grade and 10th grade in the great — in the horrendous Triangle Fire of 1911 in which 114 New Yorkers died, you know, the main problem was locked fire exits. And in Ali Enterprises, that was the big problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Steven Greenhouse from The New York Times, thanks so much.