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Are your clothes made in safer factories after the 2013 Bangladesh factory disaster?

The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100, a tragedy that pressured Western clothing retailers and customers to take responsibility for work conditions. Five years later, signs suggest factories have improved, but progress is not universal. John Yang talks with Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of what many consider the worst garment industry accident in history, the collapse of Rana Plaza at the outskirts of the capital of Bangladesh.

    It was an event that shocked the world and reminded many of the conditions in which so many clothes worn around the world are manufactured.

    John Yang has this update on the disaster, in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives and more than 2,500 were injured.

  • John Yang:

    Most of the dead were young women, garment workers who were crushed or trapped in the rubble when the eight-story building collapsed.

    Investigators said the top four floors had been built without permits, and the ground beneath the structure was unstable. They concluded that the collapse was triggered by the weight and vibrations of power generators on the top floor that kicked in during a power outage.

    Mohammad Sujan lost his wife.

  • Mohammad Sujan (through translator):

    My wife and I were working together as operators in Rana Plaza. After the accident, I was rescued on the fourth day and in hospital. I have been looking for my wife. And after 11 days, I found the body of my wife.

  • John Yang:

    Bangladesh is the world's second largest clothing manufacturer, behind China, employing millions of people in thousands of factories.

    The industry has had a long history of lax enforcement of building safety standards and few worker protections. Fires regularly broke out at factories. Building codes were not enforced, and workers complained about not being paid.

    The 2013 tragedy led to global pressure on Western clothing retailers and their customers to take responsibility for those conditions. Two coalitions formed, one made up mostly of U.S. clothing firms, the other mainly European brands. They worked to make the factories supplying them safer.

    In a report issued this week, New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights said conditions have improved, sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers installed, worker training stepped up and building standards strengthened.

    But the progress is not universal. Factories that do not sell directly to major retailers are not subject to their requirements.

    For more on what's changed and what hasn't, we're joined by Paul Barrett. He is deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, and he's a former editor at "Bloomberg Businessweek" and at The Wall Street Journal.

    Paul, thanks so much for joining us.

    Paul, what has changed since that disaster?

  • Paul Barrett:

    Well, as your piece mentioned, the Western brands and retailers have brought pressure, very effectively, on the owners of Bangladeshi factories, with the threat if they don't make the factories safer they will lose their Western business.

    And that collective action has made factories safer in terms of electrical systems, in terms of fire prevention, sprinkler systems, alarms, that kind of thing, and structural problems that had plagued a lot of these factories.

    And along the way, a number of factories have been shut down altogether because they were not something that could be salvaged. So that's sort of the good news part of the story.

  • John Yang:

    But these don't cover all the factories in Bangladesh.

  • Paul Barrett:

    Right. And that's the bad news part of the story, is that the Western coalitions that formed to make factories safer had basically limited jurisdiction.

    They didn't cover some 1,600 factories that are overseen by the Bangladeshi government, which is not famous for the rigor of its regulation, and then an unknown number, possibly in the thousands, of smaller subcontracting factories that take sort of overthrow work from the larger factories and do a lot of work on clothing that ends up in the West, Europe and North America.

  • John Yang:

    Your team from the Stern visited — the Stern Center — visited one of those subcontractors. What did you see? What did you learn?

  • Paul Barrett:

    Yes, actually, we visited a couple of them.

    And in both places, the owners were fairly forthcoming, as long as we didn't reveal their identity or the location of their factory. In one, the owner basically showed us that he had purchased a fire safety plan that was necessary to join a certain trade association.

    And when we asked him whether he actually implemented the plan, he said, oh, no, no, no, he didn't have the money to do that. So he had basically bought a phony fire plan to show to people who came to his factory.

    In the other one, the owner told us that a government inspector had been by and had left with him a list of fire safety requirements, but that he had lost the list and had no intention of following through on it.

    So, you can see that, in these smaller factories, there's just no real expectation that regulation will take.

  • John Yang:

    And these outside inspections by this coalition of retailers and brands, that sunsets. That's going away.

  • Paul Barrett:

    Well, that's right. That's another limitation.

    These were set up to be five-year programs. And one of them, the one that's dominated by American companies, which is known as the Alliance is set to be basically shutting down by the end of this year.

    And the other one, known as the Accord, dominated by European companies, has provisionally said that it will continue in six-month increments. But, eventually, that one will go away as well.

    And in the long run, this ultimately becomes the responsibility of the Bangladeshi government.

  • John Yang:

    Which, as you say, is not famous for the rigor of their inspections.

  • Paul Barrett:

    Right.

  • John Yang:

    Your group has a prescription for a solution to. And what is it?

  • Paul Barrett:

    Yes, it's a short-run prescription to deal with the limitations of the safety coalitions that have been in effect.

    We're proposing a Bangladeshi-led international task force that would use a concept known as shared responsibility to raise funds and see that they are spent properly on safety improvements in those factories that have not been reached so far.

    And the participants in this would include the Bangladeshi government, the Western companies, crucially, the Western governments whose consumers enjoy low-priced Bangladeshi clothes, and international financial organizations like the World Bank.

  • John Yang:

    What's the price tag on that?

  • Paul Barrett:

    Well, we did a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation based on several variables that we estimated, including a per-factory remediation cost of $250,000, and came up with a price tag of about $1.2 billion.

    So it's not an unsubstantial amount, but if the governments of various Western countries got involved, it would be something that would be manageable.

  • John Yang:

    What do you think the chances are of that happening?

  • Paul Barrett:

    Well, I think it's not a sure bet, to say the least.

    I think it's a long shot, but I think it's something that, at a minimum, provokes and catalyzes conversations and focus on what has not yet been done in Bangladesh. So, even if we don't get to e ultimate goal that we have set out, we will galvanize attention, in hopes that the Bangladeshi government will step up and that other entities will as well.

  • John Yang:

    Paul Barrett of New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, thanks so much.

  • Paul Barrett:

    You bet. Thank you.

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