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When Fashion Becomes Fatal: Exploring the Calamities of the Garment Industry

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Last spring, Bangladesh, the world’s second-leading exporter of clothing, trailing China, became the center of one of the worst disasters in garment history when a factory at the Rana Plaza in Savar, collapsed killing 1,127 people. A 400 page report stated that workers were urged to continue to work in the factories, making clothing for retailers such as JC Penny, The Gap, Zara, H & M, Sears, and Bennetton, despite evidence the building was unsafe. The Rana Plaza disaster has focused national attention on these types of tragedies with the report further stating “a disaster like this was waiting to happen”. The building’s owner, Sohel Rana and other colleagues, could be charged with homicide and face life sentences if convicted of wrongdoing. The problem: large power generators placed on the upper floors which would shake the already ill-fated building whenever they were switched on. The day before the collapse, workers heard what was described as an explosion which made them run from the building in terror. An engineer later examined the issue pointing out to Rana there were cracks in three support pillars which Rana apparently blew off by saying “the plaster on the wall is broken, nothing more.” But it was something more, much more. The next day, as one of the generators switched on, the building buckled and collapsed.

To much dismay, working conditions and safety has been a huge issue within the garment industry for many years costing several working people their lives. March 25,1911, a factory fire resulted in the deaths of 146 garment workers in New York. Reminiscent to the 1911 incident, an earlier Bangladesh factory fire also resulted in the deaths of almost 300 people who were trapped, burned, asphyxiated or jumped to their deaths, in November of 2012. What’s even worse is that many of the people working in these factories, under these types of conditions, are often children, mainly young girls, who are forced to work seven days a week and for as little as $40 a month. Because Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in the world, with only a per capita income of $2000 per year, it’s possibly safe to say that workers are unable to fight for better working conditions and higher wages for themselves.

When is it the responsibility of a retailer or our priority as a people to say enough is enough? Is it safe to assume that no one, not even a retailer whose clothing is being made in Bangladesh and other countries, is willing to pay for the safety of these workers or willing to fight for better wages for them? Apparently they are being held accountable to some regard after last year’s disaster. Retailers were provided a Fire and Building Safety Agreement last May which would protect garment workers and commit the retailer to paying for necessary repairs and renovations. Will this be enough to prevent something like this from happening or should we do more? The Gap has posted the following statement on their website regarding this issue: “Gap Inc. is committed to assisting factory owners in Bangladesh in making the necessary fire and building safety upgrades. Recognizing the expensive cost of capital in Bangladesh, Gap Inc. will provide accelerated access to capital of up to US$20 million as necessary to support the implementation of the required safety improvements.” Zara, H&M and some others that were not reported in this article, did sign the Fire and Building Safety agreement however it is unclear as to if Walmart, JC Penney and others had signed. To voice your opinion on this topic or to read more, visit The Clean Clothes Campaign website at http://www.cleanclothes.org/news/press-releases/2013/05/10/global-suppor...

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