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Bangladesh Disaster Calls Attention to Worldwide Garment Industry

  • Deborah Block

The death toll from last week's collapse of a building housing garment factories in Bangladesh now stands at more than 500 and is expected to go higher. The disaster brings attention to the overall problems in garment factories in developing countries.

The building collapse comes just five months after a massive fire killed more than 100 people at another clothing factory in Bangladesh. John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, says factory owners and the government must ensure buildings are safe. He believes conditions would also improve if garment workers were unionized and could sue for injury.

“Bangladesh has very problematic labor conditions, and part of the reason the workers can be driven so hard to produce good quality product on time quickly is because they don’t have any rights,” Sifton said.

Pietra Rivoli, a business professor at Georgetown University in Washington, says legislation is needed to change the conditions in Bangladesh. So is pressure by U.S. retail companies.

“When it becomes clear that a factory will not get orders unless it’s adhering to certain minimum standards, the factory will start to take notice,” Rivoli said.

After China, Bangladesh is the world's second largest apparel exporter. Sifton says Bangladesh pays 3.5 million garment workers some of the world’s lowest wages.

“They come from a low socio-economic level, and they’re not going to argue too much when you offer them a wage that would never be accepted anyplace else in the world,” Sifton said.

Those low wages and the ability to produce high-quality apparel are reasons garment factories move from one country to another.

“China was the dominant force, five or 10 years ago, but wages in China have tripled, and so garment producers find it much more expensive to produce in China. And so, if all of a sudden it becomes too expensive to pay your workers, then that will be the reason that the production will tend to start to move to lower-cost places. Vietnam and Bangladesh are examples, Pakistan, India,” Rivoli said.

Since labor is the single biggest cost, U.S. companies have found it cheaper to use overseas contractors to make garments. That’s why, Rivoli says, American apparel companies don’t own factories.

“Instead, they place orders through a very complex international supply chain. Even though we tend to look at the large price difference between the price tag in the store and the pay that the workers get, in fact, there are no parties throughout this whole process that are making a whole lot of money,” Rivoli said.

Rivoli points out that garment factories often allow industrialization to take root and flourish. She says it happened in Britain in the 1700s, in the U.S. in the 1800s and in China 10 or so years ago.