Which Brands Accept Blood on Their Labels?
May 6, 2013
It is rare that a member of Congress calls out a major industry, especially one with a powerful presence in his home state.
It is rarer still that a senior member of Congress, with a ranking position on a powerful committee, does so.
But Congressman George Miller has gone after a fashion industry that relies on low-wage workers in unsafe factories to produce clothing with “blood on their labels.”
The California Democrat is speaking to the heart of the matter.
As the death toll at the Bangladesh garment factory that produced clothing for US stores passed 650, the powerful California Democrat who has for the better part of forty years made workplace safety his congressional brief did what few in Congress or the media have the guts to do.
He explained in blunt, unapologetic language, who was really responsible.
“The reason factory managers keep their workers in unsafe buildings on the verge of going up in flames or collapsing is fear,” declared Miller. “Fear that the Western brands and retailers will take their orders elsewhere because of a missed day of production, late delivery or a minuscule increase in production costs. The brands know this. That’s why I believe they bear the ultimate responsibility for these horrendously unsafe working conditions.”
The senior Democratic member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce minced no words. And he made his statement in a forum where the fashion industry could not miss his message: a Monday morning column in Women’s Wear Daily, the industry “bible.”
To their credit, the editors of WWD placed Miller’s remarkable statement front and center, making it the top story on the publication’s website.
Though he comes from a state where many apparel firms are located, Miller offered a stark assessment not just of the horrors that have already been reported in a factory that served global brands but of the horrors to come if action is not taken.
“The death toll in Bangladesh’s garment industry is staggering, with 1,000 dead over the past several years. In the latest tragedy, an eight-story building that housed five garment factories collapsed, killing more than 500 so far, injuring more than 1,000 and leaving an unknown number of people trapped in the rubble of the Rana Plaza. And just five months earlier, a devastating fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed at least 112 garment workers,” wrote the congressman, whose influence with the Democratic leadership in Congress, with responsible Republicans and with the White House means that he is taken seriously by corporate executive who are all too adept at neglecting pressure to change their practices. “These two tragedies are not isolated. Since Tazreen, at least 40 incidents causing death and injuries as the result of fires and explosions at garment factories have occurred. Undoubtedly more will follow unless the major fashion brands change their busine
To change those business models, Miller is calling on the corporations that produce major brands and that sell them to sign on to an initiative backed by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the International Labor Rights Forum and other groups that have for years struggled to focus attention on conditions in the garment factories of southern Asia.
“American consumers and leaders in the fashion industry have a moral imperative to ensure that these tragedies do not happen again. The only way forward for the global brands to improve conditions and worker safety is an effective, enforceable and binding commitment. That is why I have asked a number of retailers and brands to join together and sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, developed by nongovernmental organizations to prevent these types of disasters from occurring,” says Miller.
The agreement is a vehicle for addressing “the most urgent elements necessary to tackle these dangers.” As such, it includes requirements for:
detailed public reporting of fire and building audits conducted by independent safety experts
timely repairs to unsafe workspaces and buildings
termination by brands of contracts with factories that defy obligations to keep workers safe
a right of workers to refuse unsafe work without retribution
union access to factories
The great debates about global trade, conditions for workers and a just economy rarely get the attention they deserve. And, too often, as Miller notes, corporations lay low hoping for the attention of governments and the media to turn to other issues.
But the congressman, by speaking directly to the fashion industry, and by making all the noise he can about the issue, is seeking to keep the economic, political and moral debate focused on concerns that are too fundamental to neglect any longer.
“The major global brands now face a choice: They can attempt to weather the storm, leaving workers in continued danger, or they can take a different road—one that includes healthy profits without the human death toll by signing onto an enforceable safety agreement,” writes Miller. “It is time that American consumers understand which brands will accept blood on their labels and which will not.”
The Bangladeshi Blood on America's Hands
April 30, 2013
They are still digging up victims from the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh—381 corpses and counting—while international media report the sickening details of crushed skulls and severed limbs and describe with sympathy the wildly distraught mourners searching the rubble for dead daughters. The Daka authorities arrested the greedy factory owner to save him from the mob. Sohel Rama, owner of the collapsed factory, blamed the pressures of global competition. He had no choice, he explained. Keep the sewing machines humming or else lose the contract.
If a country can’t keep wages and costs down, its production will be moved to the next poor nation willing to sacrifice its citizens in the name of economic advancement. This is what organized labor calls the “race to the bottom,” and unions have campaigned futilely for decades to stop it. Only there is no bottom, really, in the global food chain because the world has a vast backlog of very poor nations desperate for jobs and anxious to please the multinational companies that buy the cheap goods and rebrand them as J.C. Penney or Benetton or best-buy stuff at Walmart.
This is a very old story by now—these recurring tragedies of massive death for commerce. Bangladesh is getting good coverage because its carnage is likely setting new records. The grisly details will continue elsewhere for sure. Stories of thirty or fifty or 150 dead in industrial fires and other calamities are so routine, they begin to sound familiar and tiresome. We will see many more so long as fledgling enterprises in Asia and elsewhere are unwilling (or unable) to spend the modest sums required for routine safety measures.
For shame, Bangladesh. How can you people be so indifferent to human life? In America, we think life is precious. Don’t we? At least, we think American life is precious. Those strange foreigners should learn to look out for their own the way we supposedly do.
Enough of our sickening hypocrisy. Let’s drop the tear-jerk stories in American newspapers. Let us admit the cold truth about ourselves. The guilt for these distant deaths belongs to us—the self-righteous American government and morally obtuse American citizens. Not only because our people buy the stuff these young girls make in dangerous places where many of them will perish. But because the US government in Washington has the power to stop this inhumanity.
The president and Congress will not stop it, of course. That would require an admission of responsibility for what goes on in producing nations that feed our consumer culture. More importantly, it would violate our precious idea of freedom—wondrously expressed by the free market that insures prosperity and delivers the goods with good prices.
The federal government could stop these industrial scandals rather quickly by legislating rules of trade that prohibit any imported goods that are produced in barbarous conditions. This is not rocket science, as policy-makers like to say, nor without ample precedent. The so-called “free trade” system is actually a dense weave of import-export regulations that authorize government to inspect and reject goods at the border—drugs and food, for instance—if they do not comply with our standards for health and safety. A US trade restriction would require US importing companies to certify that the goods were produced in safe, sound factories. Nothing fancy, but basic terms that any modern society would insist upon for its own people. If a factory is falsely certified, the goods would be blocked from entry and a stiff penalty would fall upon the Walmarts of American commerce, not the bucket-shop operators in very poor countries.
This would reverse the incentives and begin to build a floor of decency under what the trading system allows. President Obama and US multinationals are preparing a new free-trade agreement with Asian nations, but you can be sure there is nothing in it to protect the defenseless workers in Bangladesh and other poor countries. Indeed, US trade agreements, starting with NAFTA, have concentrated on insuring the rights of capital, not labor. We do not know what Obama will propose because his negotiations are being conducted in private consultation with the multinational companies—no labor representatives have yet been allowed to see draft agreements.
The usual cheerleaders for globalization will instantly denounce this idea as a dangerous intrusion—protectionism!—that threatens free-flowing commerce. “Two cheers for sweatshops,” as The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn once declared. Yes, they would acknowledge, trade does involve some unfortunate negative qualities, but as poor nations prosper they will learn, in time, to insist on higher standards. This is the path to modern life, so best not interfere.
Actually, unregulated globalization—shorn of human sympathy and oblivious to persistent cruelties—is the road backwards. The creative tumult of our era, with its fantastic inventions and globalizing production, has reverted to ancient injustices—forms of exploitation that originated three centuries ago with the English industrial revolution. When new machines like textile looms displaced human labor, the seasoned workers were dismissed, their skills no longer valued. They were replaced in the factory by children and women—cheaper laborers without power or influence who toiled in “the dark satanic mills” first described by the English poet William Blake.
In our time, industrial capitalism has profitably employed the same exploitative routine, but with an essential difference. Thanks to global supply chains, contemporary sweatshops with dismal wages and sordid working conditions are located on the other side of the world. The people are exploited in various ways, but their cruel conditions cannot easily be seen by the American consumers who benefit from afar.
Thus, it is very difficult for exploited workers to organize meaningful protests and build the popular support needed for a reform movement. Even to attempt protests threatens workers with retaliation by the multinational companies. They can readily pack up and leave, move the factories to the next low-wage country where people and governments are desperate for jobs and income, however pitiful.
This cycle of exploitation is destined to continue until the world runs out of poor countries to exploit. Or until citizens in rich countries like the United States get over the ignorant indifference and face up to their guilty complicity with evil practices done in their name.