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Who is responsible for building safety in countries like Bangladesh?

Bangladeshi activists shout slogans and wave flags during a procession to mark May Day, or International Workers Day, in Dhaka on May 1, 2013.
Bangladeshi activists shout slogans and wave flags during a procession to mark May Day, or International Workers Day, in Dhaka on May 1, 2013.

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With the death toll well past 400 people and an unknown number still missing after the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh, thousands of people marched through the streets of Bangladesh this May Day. They recount the recent tragedies, share their griefs, and shout for worker safety and the death penalty for the Rana Plaza owner.

Although this factory collapse is not the first tragedy due to fatal building construction in Bangladesh, this has been the most severe. The Associated Press reports that even after a fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. that killed 112 people last  year, there have been another 41 “fire incidents” in Bangladesh factories. So, who is responsible for building safety and preventing future deaths?

International unions are going after the retailers who contract garment production in these buildings. Although private audits and checks already exist, the unions say it’s not enough and these international clothing brands need to be legally responsible for worker safety.

Ben Hensler, the Deputy Director and General Counsel for Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), said on AirTalk about these retailers and brands, “They’ve chosen to have their garments produced in Bangladesh, to have their garments produced with these particular companies, and they benefit from the rock bottom prices that they have to pay for the garments; and they have a responsibility to make sure the workers who make those garments have safe conditions. And as this latest tragedy shows, they’ve been very much deficient in that.”

Hensler said that the companies are not ignorant of factory conditions because they visit to see the quality of the garments. If they care about the condition of the garments, then consumers should hold companies responsible for caring about the condition of the workers.

In coordination with other groups, the WRC is pushing brands to sign an agreement to improve building safety over the next two years. Phillips Van Heusen (PVH), which includes Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and German brand Tchibo have signed. If two more brands agree, these companies will share the costs of improving building safety. 

But should the burden rest on the Bangladeshi government? The garment industry is worth billions in Bangladesh, and citizens are demanding they invest more funds into factory inspections and audits. Retailers argue that the government is responsible for the lives of its citizens, and local factory owners need to keep their buildings up to code. 

Since garment production is contracted, retailers don’t always know who and where is making their clothing and cannot practically monitor building safety.

The founder and chairman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Fred Smith, said that responsibility lies with the factory owner, who knew about the crack in the building. The owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is currently under arrest and awaiting charges that would lead to a few years in prison. However, Bangladeshi citizens today are protesting that he should receive the death penalty.

Smith said that the bigger issue is the moral responsibility to increase the wealth of poorer countries. He asked on AirTalk, “How do we find ways of recognizing that our greatest moral responsibility is to help the poor people of the world get wealthier so they can afford the safer, longer life societies like we have?”

He cited American history as an example, and how industrialization from the North changed the financially struggling South. During the Industrial Revolution, there were accidents and tragedies, but because the South got wealthier, workers naturally started to demand higher risk premiums if the plant was less safe. This encouraged plants to improve their safety standards. 

Hensler disagreed and said national regulations and the forming of unions caused plants to adopt standardized safety regulations. AirTalk listener Mark from Laguna Beach noted that small business owners who buy from overseas garment factories could not afford to send structural engineers and be responsible for building safety. 

Weigh In:

And do consumers bear responsibility? Retailers say that upgrading overseas building standards are financially detrimental because of the fierce competition for low prices. As a consumer, do these incidents affect your buying decisions? Would you pay more for clothing?


Ben Hensler, Deputy Director and General Counsel for Worker Rights Consortium

Fred Smith, Founder and Chairman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute; Director of the Center for Advancing Capitalism