International pressure following the 2013 collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people brought improvement in workplace safety and forced the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to amend the country’s labor laws. Yet it would be a mistake for Western consumers to assume that clothing made in Bangladesh is now produced under safe, fair conditions. A brutal recent crackdown on protesting garment workers is proof that clothing manufactured in Bangladesh is still exacting a terrible price from the people who make it.
A strike by workers at the Windy Apparels factory in December, to protest working conditions and shockingly low wages, set off protests that spread to dozens of factories. Owners responded by suspending or firing some 1,500 workers. Factory owners who produce clothing for brands like H&M, Gap, Walmart, C&A, Abercrombie and Fitch and Tommy Hilfiger filed criminal complaints against 25 labor activists and workers, charging some under the country’s sweeping 1974 Special Powers Act.
The truth is that the 2013 labor-law reforms did little to improve workers’ rights: As of last year, just 10 percent of Bangladesh’s more than 4,500 garment factories had registered unions. The minimum wage of 32 cents an hour has not been raised since 2013, despite inflation.
The crackdown is clearly intended to intimidate workers and keep Bangladesh a low-wage country, thus protecting an industry that accounts for some 80 percent of export earnings. But it also could make Bangladesh less attractive to Western retailers that, once again, find the reputation of their brands compromised. The American Apparel and Footwear Association urged Ms. Hasina’s government last week to adopt “a regular and transparent wage review mechanism.” But the lot of Bangladesh’s garment workers will not improve until Western retailers stop exerting pressure on suppliers to drive costs even lower.
The European Union, Bangladesh’s largest trading partner, also has a responsibility to help. The Sustainability Compact for Bangladesh, begun by the bloc in response to the 2013 building collapse, covers “respect for labor rights, in particular freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining,” as well as “responsible business conduct.” The failure by the garment industry and Ms. Hasina’s government to adhere to its principles stains an industry and threatens the economy and stability of Bangladesh.