Are your clothes made in safer factories after the 2013 Bangladesh factory disaster?

AMNA NAWAZ: Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary
of what many consider the worst garment industry accident in history, the collapse of Rana
Plaza at the outskirts of the capital of Bangladesh. It was an event that shocked the world and
reminded many of the conditions in which so many clothes worn around the world are manufactured. John Yang has this update on the disaster,
in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives and more than 2,500 were injured. JOHN YANG: Most of the dead were young women,
garment workers who were crushed or trapped in the rubble when the eight-story building
collapsed. Investigators said the top four floors had
been built without permits, and the ground beneath the structure was unstable. They concluded that the collapse was triggered
by the weight and vibrations of power generators on the top floor that kicked in during a power
outage. Mohammad Sujan lost his wife. MOHAMMAD SUJAN, Lost Wife in Building Collapse
(through translator): My wife and I were working together as operators in Rana Plaza. After the accident, I was rescued on the fourth
day and in hospital. I have been looking for my wife. And after 11 days, I found the body of my
wife. JOHN YANG: Bangladesh is the world’s second
largest clothing manufacturer, behind China, employing millions of people in thousands
of factories. The industry has had a long history of lax
enforcement of building safety standards and few worker protections. Fires regularly broke out at factories. Building codes were not enforced, and workers
complained about not being paid. The 2013 tragedy led to global pressure on
Western clothing retailers and their customers to take responsibility for those conditions. Two coalitions formed, one made up mostly
of U.S. clothing firms, the other mainly European brands. They worked to make the factories supplying
them safer. In a report issued this week, New York University’s
Stern Center for Business and Human Rights said conditions have improved, sprinkler systems
and fire extinguishers installed, worker training stepped up and building standards strengthened. But the progress is not universal. Factories that do not sell directly to major
retailers are not subject to their requirements. For more on what’s changed and what hasn’t,
we’re joined by Paul Barrett. He is deputy director of the New York University
Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, and he’s a former editor at “Bloomberg Businessweek”
and at The Wall Street Journal. Paul, thanks so much for joining us. Paul, what has changed since that disaster? PAUL BARRETT, Deputy Director, New York University
Stern Center for Business and Human Rights: Well, as your piece mentioned, the Western
brands and retailers have brought pressure, very effectively, on the owners of Bangladeshi
factories, with the threat if they don’t make the factories safer they will lose their Western
business. And that collective action has made factories
safer in terms of electrical systems, in terms of fire prevention, sprinkler systems, alarms,
that kind of thing, and structural problems that had plagued a lot of these factories. And along the way, a number of factories have
been shut down altogether because they were not something that could be salvaged. So that’s sort of the good news part of the
story. JOHN YANG: But these don’t cover all the factories
in Bangladesh. PAUL BARRETT: Right. And that’s the bad news part of the story,
is that the Western coalitions that formed to make factories safer had basically limited
jurisdiction. They didn’t cover some 1,600 factories that
are overseen by the Bangladeshi government, which is not famous for the rigor of its regulation,
and then an unknown number, possibly in the thousands, of smaller subcontracting factories
that take sort of overthrow work from the larger factories and do a lot of work on clothing
that ends up in the West, Europe and North America. JOHN YANG: Your team from the Stern visited
— the Stern Center — visited one of those subcontractors. What did you see? What did you learn? PAUL BARRETT: Yes, actually, we visited a
couple of them. And in both places, the owners were fairly
forthcoming, as long as we didn’t reveal their identity or the location of their factory. In one, the owner basically showed us that
he had purchased a fire safety plan that was necessary to join a certain trade association. And when we asked him whether he actually
implemented the plan, he said, oh, no, no, no, he didn’t have the money to do that. So he had basically bought a phony fire plan
to show to people who came to his factory. In the other one, the owner told us that a
government inspector had been by and had left with him a list of fire safety requirements,
but that he had lost the list and had no intention of following through on it. So, you can see that, in these smaller factories,
there’s just no real expectation that regulation will take. JOHN YANG: And these outside inspections by
this coalition of retailers and brands, that sunsets. That’s going away. PAUL BARRETT: Well, that’s right. That’s another limitation. These were set up to be five-year programs. And one of them, the one that’s dominated
by American companies, which is known as the Alliance is set to be basically shutting down
by the end of this year. And the other one, known as the Accord, dominated
by European companies, has provisionally said that it will continue in six-month increments. But, eventually, that one will go away as
well. And in the long run, this ultimately becomes
the responsibility of the Bangladeshi government. JOHN YANG: Which, as you say, is not famous
for the rigor of their inspections. PAUL BARRETT: Right. JOHN YANG: Your group has a prescription for
a solution to. And what is it? PAUL BARRETT: Yes, it’s a short-run prescription
to deal with the limitations of the safety coalitions that have been in effect. We’re proposing a Bangladeshi-led international
task force that would use a concept known as shared responsibility to raise funds and
see that they are spent properly on safety improvements in those factories that have
not been reached so far. And the participants in this would include
the Bangladeshi government, the Western companies, crucially, the Western governments whose consumers
enjoy low-priced Bangladeshi clothes, and international financial organizations like
the World Bank. JOHN YANG: What’s the price tag on that? PAUL BARRETT: Well, we did a rough back-of-the-envelope
calculation based on several variables that we estimated, including a per-factory remediation
cost of $250,000, and came up with a price tag of about $1.2 billion. So it’s not an unsubstantial amount, but if
the governments of various Western countries got involved, it would be something that would
be manageable. JOHN YANG: What do you think the chances are
of that happening? PAUL BARRETT: Well, I think it’s not a sure
bet, to say the least. I think it’s a long shot, but I think it’s
something that, at a minimum, provokes and catalyzes conversations and focus on what
has not yet been done in Bangladesh. So, even if we don’t get to e ultimate goal
that we have set out, we will galvanize attention, in hopes that the Bangladeshi government will
step up and that other entities will as well. JOHN YANG: Paul Barrett of New York University’s
Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, thanks so much. PAUL BARRETT: You bet. Thank you.

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