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OM in the News: The Toll of Cheap Clothing

November 7, 2016
Relatives hold photos of workers missing in the Rana Plaza collapse

Relatives hold photos of workers missing in the Rana Plaza collapse

In April 2013, when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh crumbled and killed more than a thousand garment workers, Western clothing executives were chastened. They were the ones, after all, who’d been pressuring Bangladesh’s apparel factories to cheaply reproduce runway trends for consumers in the U.S. and Europe who’d grown used to $10 dresses. Following the accident, H&M, Zara, Walmart, Gap, and other major brands announced they’d fund and oversee factory inspections in Bangladesh, demanding improvements from facilities that fell short and cutting off business with those that didn’t get better.

“Three years have passed, and an uncomfortable truth is emerging,” reports BusinessWeek (Oct. 31-Nov.6, 2016). Of some 1,600 factories, more than 80% are behind schedule on improvements. The government, too, has made limited progress: It’s shut down just 39 facilities that posed an “immediate” danger to workers. Meanwhile, investigators keep finding defects: faulty sprinklers, exit stairwells used for storage, missing fire doors.

Surprising? The craze for cheap, on-trend clothing that helped turn Bangladesh into the world’s second-biggest apparel exporter, after China, has actually intensified since the disaster. Low-priced brands keep undercutting one another, and that keeps squeezing the factories that produce their clothes. This is the backdrop against which factory owners are expected to make time-consuming, expensive improvements.

So far, the government has shut down only those factories that posed an imminent risk to employees. If it lets imperfect, if not immediately dangerous, factories continue to operate, that could endanger garment workers. At the same time, the garment industry is a major employer, credited with helping to cut the country’s poverty rate almost in half since the 1990s, to just over 31%. Also, Bangladesh’s garment industry is facing serious competition from other countries, and if it becomes costlier to source clothing from Bangladesh, Western brands could migrate to Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, or Ethiopia.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What is the ethical dilemma facing both U.S. brands and the Bangladesh government?
  2. Why are the safety fixes not corrected more quickly?
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