The most dangerous job in the world, outside war zones, isn't that of an undercover police officer or a firefighter or a bullfighter or aerialist. It's sewing garments — particularly in Bangladesh.
The death toll in the April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza has topped 1,100. But Rana Plaza is merely the most deadly of an unbroken string of preventable disasters that have plagued garment manufacturing in Bangladesh, the world's second-largest exporter of clothing, behind only China. It's not even the most recent preventable disaster: Since the cataclysmic building collapse, several fires have swept other Bangladeshi factories, the most recent of which took eight lives.
“That fire began on the lower floors, but people died on the floors above,” says Scott Nova, who heads the Workers Rights Consortium, the organization that has spearheaded the global fight to make garment factories safe. “Those people would have had no trouble getting out unharmed if they could have walked into stairwells protected by fire doors. But the factory had open staircases that became a chimney, funneling toxic smoke to the upper floors. And most of the factories in the country are similarly structured.”
Some of the major retailers and brands that had boasted of their safety inspections before the Rana collapse have since admitted that while their inspectors looked for things such as fire extinguishers, they didn't check the structural soundness of the buildings. Noticing whether stairwells are open or closed, however, doesn't require an engineering degree. Making sure that factories have staircases sealed off by fire doors simply wasn't a priority for the global retailers who went to Bangladesh because it was the cheapest place on the planet to make their goods.
In the wake of Rana, that's begun to change. Under pressure from unions and anti-sweatshop activists in their home countries, the European retailers and brands with the biggest presence in Bangladesh agreed to a plan under which they would pay for renovations to make their factories safe and independent inspections that would keep them that way. The retailers include H&M, which is the biggest buyer in Bangladesh, Carrefour and the British-based firms Tesco and Primark.
Thus far, most U.S. firms have declined to sign on. Holdouts include Wal-Mart, which ranks just behind H&M in the volume of clothing produced in Bangladesh; Gap; J.C. Penney and Sears. The only U.S. company to join the accord — and it signed on to a version that predated last month's disaster outside the Bangladeshi capital — is PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Izod.
The problem here isn't Bangladesh. Garment work has historically led to mass death for young women — the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York's Washington Square took 146 lives — when marketers and manufacturers have been able to elude safety standards in pursuit of higher profits.
Wal-Mart, though, has taken this problem to a new level. By depressing wages at its retail outlets and at every point along its supply chain, it has helped create an underpaid buying public compelled to shop for discount clothing. Everyday low wages create a demand for everyday low prices — a downward spiral that hits bottom in the deathtraps of Bangladesh.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect magazine.