What's the Solution to the World's Sweatshop Problem?S

The spate of preventable industrial disasters in Bangladesh has focused the attention of the media, and many consumers, on the conditions under which our clothing is made, both in that country and in the other low-wage economies that most retailers now rely on to keep their racks filled with cheap clothing. Although Bangladesh has a very sad history of garment worker deaths — more than 600 workers have died in factory fires since 2006 — two sad recent incidents caught the world's attention.

First, last November, came the Tazreen factory fire that killed 112 garment workers. And then this April, the Rana Plaza building, housing several factories collapsed, killing 1,129 people. Most of the victims were women; a number were children who were crushed to death in the building's day care center.

Labels for Wal-Mart house brands were found in the ashes at Tazreen, even though the company denied it ever contracted with the factory. (It later emerged that Tazreen was on a list of approved Wal-Mart suppliers, despite the fact the retailer had flagged it for safety violations during a recent inspection.) Wal-Mart also manufactured in one of the factories housed in the eight-story Rana Plaza building. So did brands including Joe Fresh, Mango, Primark, Benetton, and the Children's Place. Less deadly incidents are also common: just today came the news that 450 workers at a knitwear factory near Dhaka were hospitalized after the factory's drinking water became contaminated.

Bangladeshi labor activists, including the former garment worker Kalpona Akter, point to numerous examples of lax safety standards and oversight. Akter was fired from the factory she'd worked in since the age of 12 when she tried to organize her colleagues to ask for better working conditions — she and her fellow workers were pulling 100-hour weeks for wages of $6 per month. These sweatshops have fire extinguishers that don't work — they're just for show during "inspections" by foreign retailers. They have emergency exits which are locked. They have scripts that instruct employees on the responses they should give corporate auditors: the correct number of hours they should admit to working, the safety equipment used, the emergency exits. "We know the government is complicit in all of this," says Akter. Child labor, though illegal, is widespread.

The construction of Rana Plaza itself should never have happened: the building lacked the necessary permits, its foundations lay in swampy ground, three floors had been added illegally, and more floors were in the process of being built when the collapse occurred. The morning of the disaster, employees called managers' attention to sudden cracks that had appeared in the building's walls and foundations, but they were ordered to begin their workday anyway. "A half-hour later," says Akter, "the building collapsed."

There is a safety accord for the foreign brands that use Bangladesh as a source of cheap labor that addresses many of these issues. Forty-three companies in the U.S. and Europe, including PVH (which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein), H&M, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, and Joe Fresh parent company Loblaws, have signed the accord, and agreed to pay higher wages, submit to strict, independent safety audits of their facilities, pay to bring factories up to standard, and to allow workers to organize to improve their conditions. That last condition is crucial to improving safety in a country where union leaders have been subject to official intimidation, beaten, and murdered. The retailers who haven't signed, however, argue that the reforms that are so clearly necessary shouldn't be up to them, and are properly the province of the Bangladeshi government.

But the Bangladeshi economy is dwarfed by the size of the companies that consume the apparel it produces. Bangladesh's total 2011 G.D.P. was $111 billion. Wal-Mart's total revenue last year was $447 billion. Furthermore, Bangladeshi labor activists point out that numerous government figures are also involved in the country's apparel trade, making them unlikely to pass the necessary reforms. What business owner votes for more regulation? The Rana Plaza building was owned by Sohel Rana, a leader of the ruling political party's youth wing. Many have speculated that Rana's political influence was what allowed him to build without proper permits, and to illegally expand.

American multinationals that use Bangladesh as a source of cheap labor have a responsibility to make these basic reforms — and unlike the Bangladeshi government, they have the means to pay for them. For Wal-Mart to argue that the impoverished nation of Bangladesh needs to take sole responsibility for these problems, even as Wal-Mart is trumpeting a $15 billion annual profit, is deeply cynical.

Four million Bangladeshis work in the garment sector, 70% of whom are women. Apparel and textile manufacturing accounts for nearly 80% of the country's exports, and Bangladesh has grown to become the world's second-largest exporter of apparel after China. It also has one of the lowest minimum wages for garment workers in the world, although it's risen a little since the days Akter was toiling in a factory: $37 per month.

The reason Wal-Mart and Gap Inc. oppose the Bangladesh safety accord, which is a formal set of reforms proposed by Bangladeshi activists and the union IndustriALL, is that the accord recognizes workers' rights to unionize, and mandates that companies work with workers and unions to resolve disputes via arbitration. Wal-Mart is notorious for its hardline anti-union policies both in the U.S. and overseas. Spokespersons for Wal-Mart and Gap Inc. agree that worker safety is an important ideal — but apparently it's not one as important to them as preserving that anti-union stance.

Shame on them.

And also, in a smaller way, shame on us: it must be pointed out in any discussion of inexpensive clothes and the conditions of their manufacture that the ability to buy a t-shirt for $9.99 is not a legitimate entitlement. A $9.99 t-shirt is not the natural result of capitalism and the free market: it is the the result of discrete policy decisions undertaken in recent decades by the U.S. government and the W.T.O. not only to permit but to favor outsourcing to countries that lack environmental protections and basic labor protections. What many consumers do not understand is that the cheap prices we can pay for clothing now are not just low, they are historically unprecedented. Adjusting for inflation, clothing was many times more expensive in the U.S. in the middle part of last century — when it was mostly manufactured domestically, by workers who had access to basic legal and safety protections — than it is today. And last time I checked, there were poor people around back then, too, who somehow managed to clothe themselves despite those slightly higher prices. The truth is that most people aren't shopping all this slavery-priced clothing out of poverty or necessity — they're shopping out of desire. If people were truly buying only out of necessity, the average U.S. wardrobe wouldn't comprise dozens more garments now than at any time in history. Don't get it twisted: I don't think consumers bear even one-one-hundredth of the moral responsibility of the retailers who together define the clothing market. Multinationals like Wal-Mart and Gap Inc. have this game rigged, they are the ones whose tireless, successful lobbying for tax breaks and favorable legislation has permitted them to extract savings of pennies per piece at the cost of their workers' safety. And the onus falls on them and on the governments of this world to reign in their enormous cruelty. But that doesn't change the fact that $9.99 is not a price that anyone should be paying for a t-shirt. That t-shirt, and t-shirts everywhere like it, are not cheap at all: they could well cost the life of a young woman in Bangladesh or Vietnam or Cambodia or China or anywhere else. Shame on us.

Wal-Mart's annual shareholder meeting is tomorrow. Akter and other labor-rights activists are using the occasion to draw attention to the company's record of mistreating workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Wal-Mart is the second-largest buyer of clothing from Bangladesh. It has also been criticized for its record of mistreating U.S. workers: there was the famous sex-discrimination lawsuit, and more recently, it has fired American employees who tried to organize for better wages and conditions.

Akter told the Nation that she doesn't want consumers to stop buying goods produced in Bangladesh: she wants them to raise their voices. She wants us to raise our voices. Akter doesn't support a boycott of Bangladeshi goods — the millions of women employed by the garment industry depend on their jobs for income. Foreign companies, says Akter, shouldn't divest from Bangladesh; the consequences for the local economy would be disastrous. Instead, they should put up the cash to improve working conditions, pay a living wage, and shoulder the full moral responsibility of their manufacturing.

"If consumers stop buying, that is like a boycott and a boycott doesn’t help us," says Akter.

"Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want US consumers to say, 'We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.'"

You can contact Wal-Mart here.

Image by Jim Cooke, photos via AP.