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We must raise the bar for worker safety in Bangladesh and U.S.

Tragedy strikes the garment factories of Bangladesh as another fire takes the lives of at least 10 workers. 

The fire at the garment factory Aswad Composite Mills, located in Gazipur, Bangladesh, comes about six months after the catastrophic garment factory collapse in Dhaka – about 25 miles away – which killed more than 1,100 workers.

Aswad Composite Mills produces clothing for Western retailers such as Wal-Mart, Loblaw Cos., and Hudson’s Bay Co.

Wal-Mart and Hudson’s Bay Co. were two of the 17 North American retailers and brands who refused to sign on to the global Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the five-year, legally binding document that pledges to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories. 

More than 70 international brands and retailers, such as H&M and Zara, signed the global accord and pledged to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories. But most U.S. retailers declined.

Instead, Wal-Mart and GAP devised their own safety plan – a weaker version that is not legally binding – and had more than a dozen other North American retailers sign on. Retailers like Target, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sears, L. L. Bean, J.C. Penney, Limited, The Children’s Place, Hudson’s Bay, and Carter’s placed their names on the toothless Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.  

The Alliance has left labor representatives off of its eight-member board. Essentially, the brands want factory owners to regulate themselves – and we have all seen how that turns out. 

As long as companies are allowed to operate in Bangladesh with minimal oversight, they will continue to cut corners, to the detriment of worker safety. And as long as these companies get away with cost-cutting measures to benefit their bottom line abroad, they have little incentive to maintain high standards for their workers here in the U.S.

They will rely on temporary labor instead of permanent staff; reduce staff hours to deny benefits; withhold hard-earned wages; and block workers from organizing for better conditions on the job.

We must raise the floor for workers internationally – from the garment workers in Bangladesh to the retail workers here at home.

That’s why we’re looking forward to the National Worker Safety and Health Conference in December, where Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity will deliver a keynote address. We can discuss how to work together to truly improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories. We hope you can join us!

Until we raise the bar, workers will continue to be injured or killed on the job.

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