How much would you guess the person who made the shirt you’re wearing right now was paid an hour? A living wage? Less? A dollar or two, maybe?
If it was made in Bangladesh — and as the world’s second-largest exporter of apparel, there’s a good chance it was — that worker probably only made about 21 cents an hour, which is Bangladesh’s current minimum wage.
But a less-than-living wage isn’t the only obstacle faced by garment workers in Bangladesh. According to the International Labor Right Forum, more than 700 garment workers have died in factory fires since 2005.
In many cases, the culprit — flammable chemicals and fabrics, overcrowding or illegally locked exits — could have easily been avoided if safety precautions were more strictly enforced. Historically in the U.S., for example, such disasters were commonplace until reforms aimed at eliminating them were introduced.
But when presented with the opportunity to sign an accord that would impose similar life-saving reforms abroad, many U.S. companies chose not to do so.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (also known as the Bangladesh Safety Act) requires its signatories to conduct independent inspections of factories and address any safety and structural problems discovered. Perhaps most importantly, it allows employees the right to refuse dangerous work. But without the sanction of many American companies, its effect is severely limited.
Many companies, including Walmart and Gap, cited unnecessary requirements indirectly related to fire safety in the accord, and stated that they would handle regulations themselves. While more than a dozen European retailers signed the accord, only two U.S. companies — Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH Corporation, which is parent company to Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger — chose to sign.
Considering companies like Walmart will make billions of dollars from Bangladeshi imports, their refusal to sign the agreement is inexcusable. In some factories, garment workers may be docked a full day’s pay for arriving late, they must request permission to use the bathroom and they do not have access to safe drinking water. Further, they have no right to organize against these conditions.
But for the companies that did sign, the accord is just the tip of the iceberg. While it includes provisions for building safety reforms, it doesn’t address Bangladesh’s deplorable minimum wage or the reports of physical abuse like the ones that accompanied the investigation of a 2006 factory fire that killed 84 workers. Many of the workers were young girls between the ages of 12 and 15, and were paid seven cents an hour, according to a report by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.
Consumers are part of the problem and may deserve some of the blame as well. With clothing prices at their current historical low, manufacturers face intense pressure to keep their prices low. But the fact remains that if working conditions and wages are to be improved, such low prices will be a thing of the past. Choosing to accept this as a consumer might make retailers a lot more willing to sign agreements like the Bangladesh Safety Act.
So how much are you willing to pay for the shirt you’re wearing right now?
Until it equals the cost of safer working conditions and a living wage, deadly factory fires and miniscule pay will remain a horrifying reality for Bangladeshi garment workers.