Our View

Workers should not die for your T-shirt

By From page A6 | May 14, 2013

The issue: The immense purchasing power of the American consumer can force beneficial changes in the marketplace

Workers thought they had reached the heartbreaking end of the rescue phase of the collapsed Bangladeshi factory building more than two weeks ago when the last known survivor died of smoke inhalation from a rescue attempt gone wrong.

BUT A MIRACLE happened Friday when at 19-year-old seamstress, Reshma Begum, was found alive, suffering from hunger and dehydration after being trapped for 17 days in the ruins of the factory.

On April 28, Shahina Akter was perhaps a half-hour from being freed from her 100-hour ordeal. But sparks from a saw cutting through the rebar set fire to scattered shirts and bolts of cloth, killing her and a rescue worker.

With a death toll of 1,115, the Rana Plaza is now considered the deadliest accident in the garment industry’s history.

“Accident” in this case is a euphemism. The Rana Plaza originally was designed as a five-story mall-style building for shops and offices, but its owners illegally added three floors for garment factories and allowed the installation of heavy equipment that the building was not designed to support.

When cracks began appearing in the structure, engineers recommended that it be shut down. The owners elected to keep it open and Shahina, 32, showed up. She had to. Her pay of barely $100 a month was the sole support of herself and her son and she needed that day’s pay to help scrape up $25, her share of a cheaper apartment into which her extended family was moving.

AFFORDABLE First World clothes depend on cheap Third World laborers working in hazardous conditions. A fire last November at another Bangladeshi factory killed 112 people making clothes for global retailers.

Corruption and desperation undercut regulation, and industry “self-regulation” often appears to be no regulation art all. Credit some advocacy groups with pushing for “ethically made” clothes, which now accounts for “only a fraction of 1 percent of the overall $1 trillion fashion industry,” according to the Associated Press.

But, as buyers showed with “fair trade” coffee, the immense purchasing power of the American consumer can force beneficial changes in the marketplace. The nonprofit Fair Trade USA offers a special label to companies that ensure that their overseas workers are fairly paid, work in safe conditions and have an outlet for their grievances.

LOOK FOR THE LABEL. Selling “ethically made” clothes is not a lot to ask of U.S. retailers.

The fate of exploited workers like Shahina and Reshma may seem half a world away, but, in fact, it’s as close as the shirt on your back.

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