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THE collapse last month of an eight-story building in Bangladesh, which contained five clothing factories, killed more than 400 garment workers. The disaster has focused American consumers’ attention on a painful problem.
The wrongs that led to the collapse were of Bangladeshi making. The structure was not built to code. Working conditions were miserable — crowded and hot, with no safe evacuation procedures. Wages for the largely female workers were as low as $38 a month.
In Bangladesh, many factories make clothing for well-known U.S. and international firms, including Benetton, Disney, the Gap, and J.C. Penney. Western retailers like the low cost of production in Bangladesh. That enhances companies’ profits and offers consumers attractive clothing at competitive prices.
Officials in Bangladesh fear a global boycott as a result of the tragedy. U.S. merchandisers might turn to low-cost factories in other countries, such as Cambodia, Haiti, and Myanmar. That would threaten unemployment, or worse, for low-income workers trying to make a living in Bangladesh factories.
Most Americans would like to see these employees working in safe conditions and getting paid better, even if that means our clothes will cost a little more. The U.S. government, and American and other firms, need to put pressure on producers in Bangladesh and other poor countries to head off similar labor-related tragedies.
Some U.S. companies have begun to speak out. The Bangladesh workers also have protested, but their economic circumstances give them practically no choice. They have gone back to work.