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The Shirt Off My Back – Cleaning Up the Global Supply Chain

May 30, 2013

Bangladesh Building Collapse

“Business is a very beautiful mechanism to solve problems, but we never use it for that purpose. We only use it to make money. It satisfies our selfish interest but not our collective interest.”  Muhammad Yunus, Founder Grameen Bank

Last week I cleaned out my closet. No, this is not a metaphor – this was part of the spring (albeit late) ritual cleaning.  As I sifted through the pile of last season’s clothes, I took note of the labels, “Made in Pakistan,” “Made in Sri Lanka,” and of course the increasingly common, “Made in Bangladesh.”  As I made my  – this is going to the thrift shop selections –  I wondered, how many hands touched this garment along the way to my closet – how much were they paid and how safe were the conditions where they worked?

Last week I reblogged the poignantly beautiful work of photographer Steve McCurry titled Grief, Grind and the Glory of Work. In this extraordinary photo album, McCurry captures the dangerous and grueling work of miners searching for gems in the Hindu Kush; Afghan widows toiling in medieval bakeries and garment workers arrayed by the hundreds wearing mandatory pink shirts as they sew shirts for the “wealthy” who will never see their workplace conditions.

As I fold the last of my clothes to go – a simple cotton shirt that cost me about $40 for which the average Burmese worker will make $80 for a month’s work –  I wonder, what is the real cost of our “cheap” goods?

Garments of Pain

Since the tragic, criminal and preventable building collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh that took the lives of 1127 workers, the plight of these invisible people, mostly women, has finally been given coverage by the mainstream media. 

Bangladesh, now the world’s second largest apparel exporter, has the lowest wages in the world.  Defenders of cheap labor make the argument that without these low-skill, low-pay jobs, most Bangladeshis would still live  in dire poverty. Since the arrival of textile manufacturing in the late 1970’s, the country’s poverty rate has fallen to less than 40% from 70. The average Bangladeshi went from living on $1 a day to $5.  Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money, says the country is experiencing its “T-shirt phase.”

According to Davidson, “Nearly every rich country has gone through a “T-shirt phase” an economic period in which there are a significant number of poor farmers who rather than toil on unproductive land, accept harsh work conditions and low wages in textile and apparel factories. Britain started its T-shirt phase in the late 18th century, then the South in the 20th century.”

Davidson points out that many Asian countries – Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China – progressed from the T-shirt phase into broader economic development. Cambodia, Vietnam, parts of India and Sri Lanka are passing through this now. But Bangladesh, he argues, is in the midst of a confusing T-shirt phase and in danger of getting stuck there, like Haiti and other predecessors.

While the Bangladesh government faces critical decisions on future conditions and policies that will impact the garment industry, its economic future also depends on the buying habits of shoppers in London and New York.  As Pamela Engel reported in the Business Insider, “The low prices we pay for these clothes are tied directly to the low wages and working conditions of the Bangladeshis who make them.”

Chasing Cheap Labor

I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with someone who worked for a retailer of luxury sports accessories. Her job was to travel around Asia inspecting potential sources for production of their merchandise.  After a discussion of her criteria for selection that centered on fiscal issues and concerns about quality and production time tables, I asked about working conditions and pay.  “They have a different lifestyle and cost of living,” she replied, “for many it’s a step-up from the hardship of living on farms.”

While I felt uncomfortable with her rationalization and knew it did not represent the values she professed in other areas of her life, I realized most of us make similar mental and emotional trade-offs every time we find a great “bargain” at IKEA or Amazon.  Some one paid a high price for this item – and in most cases, it wasn’t me.

The average apparel/factory worker in Bangladesh makes .24 per hour; Cambodians make .45; Pakistanis .52 and the Chinese have graduated to $1.24.   My acquaintance’s statement about the lives of those who work in unsafe factories for meager wages implies choice. Stay on the farm or work at Rana Plaza?  In her analysis of the building collapse,  author Lindsay Beyerstein wrote, “The garment workers of Rana Plaza did not freely choose to prioritize their income over their lives. When cracks appeared in the factory wall, many were reluctant to go to work. One factory in the upper floor threatened to dock a month’s pay from any worker who didn’t get to work immediately.”

Choice, it seems, is a first-world concept that we misunderstand to be an option for workers throughout the developing world.  If workers in the West hang on to jobs they hate to pay their mortgages and keep their health insurance, why do we expect so much more from the average worker in Bangladesh or Burma who struggle to put food on the table?

I’m Running out of Places to Shop

Swedish retailer H&M was one of the first to sign. Benetton followed and Britain’s Marks & Spencer joined in. Abercrombie & Fitch finally said yes (after getting trounced in the press and social media for their we don’t want “larger” people wearing our clothes outing).   So far, many other retailers like GAP and Macy’s are saying NO to the international worker safety accord that would set and enforce new standards for safer factories in Bangladesh.

Not surprising, Wal-Mart also refused to sign the agreement making a similar case to that of the GAP that signing such a pact would present legal challenges.  Reporting in the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse quoted Anna Gedda, H&M’s manager for social sustainability, “The fact that it was a legally binding accord was not a big issue. I know it is for American brands, but it isn’t for us.”

Supporters of the accord believe that the bigger issue for U.S, retailers is the clause that calls for settling disputes through independent arbitrators. “The whole fear of lawsuits is a straw man,” said Philip J. Jennings, general secretary of the UniGlobal Union, a global federation of 20 million retail and service workers. “If these American retailers get 20 lawyers in a room, they start hyperventilating about lawsuits and they’ll have a communal anxiety attack.”

While the lawyers fight and board members debate, former Rana Plaza worker Rosy Khatun waits.   Prior to the building collapse, Rosy had worked there for four months without knowing her actual salary.  Rabeya, mother of a one-month old daughter, who makes $37.50 per month, says she can’t save or send money to her parents because she must pay all of her earnings to her slum landlord and buy food.

Grameen Bank founder, Muhammad Yunus has proposed an international minimum wage for the garment industry. Yunus suggests increasing the hourly wage of Bangladeshi workers by around $0.50 could transform the industry. He believes that clothing bearing the sanctioned tag ethically sourced would be an attractive marketing tool and economic incentive.  Supporters of this plan think that people will pay a little more per garment to ensure a better life for Rabeya and Rosy.

As for me, I’ve packed away all the clothes for the thrift shop. I’m ready to buy a few new things. I don’t know where I will shop this year, but I know one thing – I don’t want to buy any more shirts that were sewn by 12-year-old girls on machines that can cut off her fingers.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Related articles: Nowhere to Run: The Growing Spotlight on Corporate Accountability;  What Rights Should All Workers Have? What’s Conscious Capitalism? 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2013 7:45 am

    A wonderfully written, thoughtful article, with some important questions.

    It used to be so easy when we thought the only place not to buy from was China. And then we started finding that conditions in other countries were far from rosy and, as time went on, even worse than at least certain Chinese factories. For some people, just buying things made in America was the solution, but then in the early 90s, we found out that clothing made in the Northern Marianas, technically part of the U.S. but exempt from our minimum wage rules and often with terrible conditions, were still labeled “made in America”.

    Even now, as hard as we try, we don’t know for sure what the working conditions are for a good number of people who make our garments. Some people have decided to buy recycled clothing or simply to make do with the old as best as possible and not give in to the need to be trendy. But of course, most of us still need to shop for clothes at times, and the more we know and the more feedback we send to companies, both those who treat their workers well and those who don’t, the more things will change, albeit way too slowly for those suffering..

    Again, Louise, thank you for adding your strong voice to those who make a difference.

    • May 30, 2013 11:02 am

      Hi Ronnie Ann,

      Thanks for your appreciation and great points. I think what is encouraging is that there is greater awareness (and ACTION) about these issues.We can thank social media for driving that knowledge. One of the things I did not have time for in this article was a mention of income inequality in the U.S. as well as the degradation of worker safety conditions here. This speaks to a neglience (which seems like a tame word) for allowing workers to bear the brunt of the “cost” of any product or service. While companies (and investors) seem mostly concerned with the bottom line (and major profits increases like that of MACYS) who refuses to sign the pact, consumers continue to grow more aware and frustrated with this one-sided arrangement.
      Surely, as you point out, this is issue is complex – and global. But the only way forward is to inform and discuss these concerns and issues thoughtfully.


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