US retailers under pressure

The article was published in Global Times (US Edition)

US retailers are facing pressure after the eight-story building, housing garments factories in Dhaka in Bangladesh, collapsed on April 24 killing over 1200 workers. The tragedy has prompted activists across the world to push Western retailers to take more responsibility for safe work conditions.
The incident has raised a key moral question of globalization: What obligation do the nations that benefit from low-cost goods made in places like Bangladesh have to ensure a safe environment and basic rights for workers?
While most European nations have signed on to a binding inspection program, most US clothing chains have declined to sign the agreement on bringing about major reforms in low-wage factories in Bangladesh.
Ben Hensler, deputy director, Worker Rights Consortium, the organization that has spearheaded the global fight to make garment factories safe, said: “The international program is the most effective way to bring about major reforms in low-wage factories in Bangladesh. The US retailers, making profit from the low-cost goods, should take the responsibility and must ensure that factory buildings are safe and equipped with adequate fire fighting device.”
H&M, the largest European retailer to source their products from Bangladesh, Ben said, has signed on the program. Besides, Carrefour and Tesco also signed on the building safety program.
“US retailers are now under pressure to sign the program. Two major US retailers PVH, (the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) and Abercrombie & Fitch have already signed on the building safety program. This will have significant impact on other retailers. We are urging other retailers to sign on the program and hopeful that others too will do the same,” Ben added.
Wal-Mart had been under particular pressure because the company is the second biggest buyers of clothes from Bangladesh and, as the world’s largest retailer, has broad influence over the industry. Wal-Mart, however, said it would conduct its own inspections at its Bangladesh facilities, which Labor groups say would fall short of what is necessary to ensure worker safety.
“Tragedies that have taken place in Bangladesh can only be prevented if all stakeholders across the board set clear parameters and take action to drive real safety and compliance improvements,” said Louis Yunzhong Cheng, a student of Social Enterprise Administration in Columbia University, New York. “Systemic change will only occur when retailers take action together. They must use the full force of their commercial power to press for reforms,” she added.
“In the US, we see products made in Bangladesh everywhere. While the rise of the South is reshaping power relations in many important aspects, hard-won gains in human development, however, will be more difficult to protect if cooperation fails and difficult decisions are postponed,” Louis said.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is getting serious about improving industrial conditions in Bangladesh. “On the labor issue, buyers have a critical role and they must be engaged. We are encouraging international investors not to turn their back on Bangladesh, because the solution is reform and not withdrawal,” US under secretary of state for political affairs Wendy R Sherman said.
Wendy added: “Success will depend on the will and commitment of industry, government, civil society and every Bangladeshis to come together to change the culture of workplace safety and workers rights.” The US is working with American firms to secure their support for better safety inspections, she said.

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