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Following two high-profile, high-fatality workplace disasters in Bangladesh in recent months, there's serious debate over what to do to improve conditions in the country's many garment factories. Disney is leaving until changes are made; some retailers, like the Children's Place, say it's not really their concern; Walmart is giving an embarrassingly inadequate amount of money to train factory managers in fire safety, training that's unlikely to help much if a fire breaks out in a factory without fire extinguishers or adequate exits. Walmart and the Children's Place obviously have the wrong response, but what would a good response look like?
There's some concern about Disney's move leading to other potentially responsible retailers leaving Bangladesh, putting people out of work without improving conditions for those who still have jobs. Several other companies, though, appear to be planning to stay in Bangladesh while taking a more serious approach on safety. The parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein and German retailer Tchibo have already signed onto a fire and building safety plan, but it requires broader participation, and there's hope that the recent building collapse may motivate other retailers to sign on. But government action may be in the cards. Not Bangladesh's government, unfortunately:
"I am not worried," Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said Friday. "These are individual cases of ... accidents. It happens everywhere."
Not to belabor the obvious, but while there are accidents everywhere, when a fire kills more than 100 because of inadequate fire exits and extinguishers and a building collapse kills more than 500 after workers were ordered into a building with visible cracks, a building that was several floors taller than it was legally allowed to be, those are not actually accidents. Those are products of gross recklessness. However, both the European Union and the United States—Bangladesh's first and second export markets, respectively—are looking at the country's trade status. That's not the only action outside governments could take:
Mr. Posner, now a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, said the Obama administration was not doing enough to address safety problems in Bangladesh. “One of the big gaps here is that governments are standing on the sideline,” he said. “They’re neither pushing a united strategy among big companies nor pushing hard enough on the Bangladesh government to do the right thing. It’s one thing to convene a meeting, it’s another thing to say to brands, ‘You have to work together to fix this.’ ”
Making the Bangladeshi garment industry safe is going to take pressure from all sides. American and European retailers need to feel pressure from consumers and governments, if not from a basic sense of morality, to sign onto strong safety programs and to fund them (which would cost an estimated 10 cents per garment). The U.S. and the EU need to say they won't give any kind of preferential trade status to a country that doesn't have and enforce adequate safety laws. And Bangladesh needs to respond by enforcing the laws it already has and by strengthening them.