It may not be what you think.
Seven hundred workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005, including the 112 who burned to death or jumped to their deaths at the Tazreen factory on November 24th. Now hundreds more bodies are being pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza building, in an industrial district 18 miles from Dhaka.
At Tazreen the owners didn't build fire escapes. They'd locked the doors on the upper floors "to prevent theft," trapping workers in the flames.
At Rana Plaza, factory owners refused to evacuate the building after huge cracks appeared in the walls, even after safety engineers told them not to let workers inside.
Workers told IndustriALL union federation representatives they'd be docked three days pay for each day of an absence, and so went inside despite their worries. As a result, the death toll is already over 250 and more are still trapped under debris.
Perhaps the building codes at Rana Plaza were not enforced, and permits never even obtained, because Sohel Rana, the building's owner, is reportedly active in Bangladesh's ruling party, the Awami League. At Tazreen the company was cited by fire inspectors, but never forced to install safety equipment.
Bangladesh's development policy is based on attracting garment production by keeping costs among the world's lowest. Safe buildings that don't collapse or trap workers in fires raise those costs. So do wages that might rise above Bangladesh's 21 cents an hour -- not a livable wage there or anywhere else.
The beneficiaries of those costs are the big brands whose clothes are sewn by the women in those factories. They give production contracts to the factories that make the lowest bids. Factories then compete to cut costs any way they can.
Tazreen made clothes for Wal-Mart, among other big brands. The Rana Plaza building held several factories where 2500 women churned out garments. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, "One of the factories in the Rana complex, Ether-Tex, had listed WalMart-Canada as a buyer on their website." Labor activists found other documents in the rubble listing cutting orders from Benetton and other labels.
Workers have been trying for years to organize militant unions to raise wages and enforce safety codes. If they'd been successful, they would have had the power to make the factories safe. The morning after the Rana collapse, 20,000 poured out of neighboring factories in protest -- other factory owners had ordered them to keep working as though nothing had happened.
Meanwhile, the giant companies controlling the industry insulate themselves from responsibility for the conditions they create. And their most important accomplice is the corporate social responsibility industry.
According to a report just released by the AFL-CIO, Responsibility Outsourced, just before a fire at the Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan killed 262 workers in 2012, clothing manufacturers hired an auditing firm, Social Accountability International, to certify it was safe. SAI then subcontracted inspection to an Italian firm, RINA, which subcontracted it yet again to a local firm RI&CA. Ali Enterprises was certified that August. "Nearly 300 workers died in a fire two weeks after," the report charges.
Certifying factories that kill workers has become an $80 billion industry that "helped keep wages low and working conditions poor, [while] it provided public relations cover for producers," Responsibility Outsourced says. "Manufacturing work has left countries in which there were laws, collective bargaining and other systems in place to reduce workplace dangers," it says, while "jobs instead have gone to countries with inadequate laws, weak enforcement and precarious employment relationships."
This transfer was enabled by corporate-friendly trade agreements guaranteeing the products of these factories unfettered access to U.S. and European markets. They simultaneously put pressure on developing countries to guarantee the rights of foreign corporate investors and an environment of low wages, lax enforcement of worker protections, and attacks on unions.
In Bangladesh, after the Tazreen fire, a binding agreement was developed by IndustriALL, the ILRC and other labor NGOs, that seeks to prevent fires and increase safety by guaranteeing workers' right to organize and enforce better conditions. Some companies, including PVH and Tchibo, have signed on. Wal-Mart and Sears, however, not only refused, but would not even pay compensation to the Tazreen fire victims.
As Bangladesh workers pull the bodies of their friends from ruin of Rana Plaza, people half a world away wearing the clothes they sew should not turn their faces away. They need real knowledge about how their shirts and blouses are produced, and who produces them. Rather than the image manipulation of Social Accountability International and its competitor, the Fair Labor Association, they should demand the truth, and then use their power as consumers.
They should drive companies guilty of industrial homicide out of the world's markets.