How Is the Garment Industry Working to Improve Conditions Abroad?

The garment factory disaster in Bangladesh has raised concern about the conditions of factories abroad. Ray Suarez talks with Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times about consequences for the owner of the factory and Bangladesh’s safety standards, as well as what’s being done by Western retailers to improve working conditions.

Read the Full Transcript


    Well, joining me now to talk about what's being done about working conditions and safety standards in Bangladesh is Steven Greenberg of The New York Times.

    Welcome to the program.

    This is an incredible story, but bring us up to date on anything more that's known, after all this time, about why this happened in the first place.

  • STEVEN GREENHOUSE, The New York Times:

    There were two incredible stories today. One, you know, the miraculous rescue of Reshma and the other incredible story was the death toll count rose over 1,000. Now, we in the United States talk about the horrendous Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, 146 people died then and that changed the United States and made us take workplace safety far, far more seriously.

    Here, more than 17 — seven times that number have died. You know, the latest death count is 1,039. And, you know, what's changed over the past week is the death count has risen from 200, 300 to over 1,000. We know more that the owner of the building, you know, acted illegally, was adding three illegal floors onto the building. I think everyone says that's one of the main reasons the building collapsed, because of all this additional weight without the proper structure to support it.

    And, you know, far more pressure has been brought on the Bangladeshi government, on the country's apparel manufacturers …




    … and on Western companies like Walmart and The Gap to — to do more to assure fire safety.

    The Bangladeshi government announced an agreement with the International Labor Organization this week that would — it would vastly increase the number of inspectors. Its said things like that before. We'll see whether something really changes.


    We heard in that …


    The Bangladeshi …


    I was going to say, we heard in that report something like 30 Western clothing manufacturers were using either this building or plants like it.

    What is known about who those manufacturers are and whether they're taking any responsibility for this?


    Good question. Some — among the Western companies that were using the factory were Benetton of Italy, El Corte Ingles of Spain, Primark of the United Kingdom.

    Here in the United States, custom records show that two American companies, Children's Place and Cato Fashions, had sourced a lot from that factory over the past year. I believe one — one or two JCPenney labels were found, as well.

    It's interesting that, you know, Loblaws of Canada, Primark, El Corte Ingles, they've all announced that they were going to participate in a fund — a victims' fund to help the families of the victims. As far as I know, no United States company has stepped up and said it would participate in the fund.

    The other thing, Judy, is a lot of — there's a lot of pressure being brought by NGOs, anti-sweatshop groups on the Western retailers to really get more serious about doing something to make sure something like this never happens again.

    You know, one — one surprise development over the past week is that there was another factory fire two nights ago where eight people died and one of those who died was the factory owner, who was a leader of the garment — of the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers Association, which has often sought to reassure the world that, hey, don't worry, things aren't so bad.

    And so I think much more pressure is being brought on the Bangladeshi government and the manufacturers to really do something, because this …


    We …


    … has happened too many times.


    You mentioned that there are efforts by these outside groups, independent groups, to get all these companies to go — abide by standards that would make sure things like this don't happen again.

    Why is that not making more — having more success at a time like this, with — with this sort of a tragedy?


    That's — that's the question that everyone is asking. There was a horrible tragedy in November in Bangladesh, where 112 workers died in a factory fire. And a lot of us journalists and others were saying that's going to change things. We're going to see Western companies really step up. We're going to see the Bangladesh government really step up to improve things.

    And here we are, six months later, with a far more horrific tragedy. And I am told — you know, I've interviewed a lot of people with various companies. They seem to be scurrying to do something. I think companies often suffer from inertia and they're not rushing to spend more money to — for safety.

    But I think now there really is immense pressure on them to do more. And the specific push is for them to sign onto a plan in which they would make a binding commitment to help finance the fire safety improvements, the building safety improvements, that would be would be needed for the more than 3,000, 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh to help ensure that the — that when workers go to work, when these women go to work in the morning, that they'll be able to come home to their families at the end of the day.


    Well, it is a story that we all need to keep coming back to. Steven Greenhouse, The New York Times, thank you.