In April 2013, Rana Plaza — an eight-story factory building in Bangladesh — collapsed, killing 1,130 people. The structure housed a number of North American and European brands, including Benetton, Bon Marche, The Children’s Place and Joe Fresh. Bangladesh has the second largest garment industry in the world, valued at $28 billion and ranked just behind China, although it has the lowest wages globally for garment workers.

The disaster, considered to be one of the worst industrial tragedies in history, has led to a call for increased accountability and transparency in the clothing industry. While agreements such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh have been put in place in the aftermath of the accident, there are still steps the garment industry can take to repair its broken system.

Companies such as H&M, Walmart and Gap have voiced their interest in improving conditions, yet progress has been a slow and difficult process.

The Building

The Rana Plaza building, based in the Dhaka District, was owned by Sohel Rana, who constructed the factory in 2006 with his father. It was created from poor quality construction materials, while heavy, vibrating machinery operated within its walls. The ground that the building had been set upon had previously been a body of water and was swampy, containing rubbish.

When Rana was developing the structure, the upper floors were added illegally, without a permit, and the creation was not made in consent. Inspection teams found cracks in the building on the Tuesday before, but workers were ordered to return to the unsafe environment the following day. That morning, the factory collapsed, with over 3,000 people inside.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the incident, workers protested and coalitions came together to promote rights within the garment industry and take measures towards preventing a future crisis like Rana Plaza. On May 15, 2013, brands, retailers and trade unions — such as Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Fruit of the Loom — signed a five-year, legally binding agreement to create safer conditions in the Bangladesh Ready Made Garment industry, drafting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The Accord includes an inspection program, as well as the establishment of the right of workers to refuse unsafe work. Funds will be made available to repair any damaged equipment, and all corrective action plans and inspection reports will be publically disclosed.

Most recently, new signatories have continued to show solidarity for the Transition Accord, which extends the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh until after 2018.

Organizations, Brands and Change

In addition, a nine-member coalition including Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Rights Forum created the Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge, which demands that companies report on manufacturing sites and pertinent details twice a year.

The Follow the Thread Campaign, a coalition consisting of organizations such as Clean Clothes Campaign and Human Rights Watch, asked retail companies to sign a Transparency Pledge in April 2017.

Brands such as H&M, Walmart and Gap affirmed that they would like to participate in improving worker safety in Bangladesh. While Walmart did not sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the company was one of the founding members of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a group of 28 retailers that holds standards and inspections, as well as supporting worker empowerment, among other practices.

Commitment to Transparency

Yet these initiatives have not been enough. Reports by the coalition the Asia Floor Wage Alliance show that many garment buildings in Bangladesh do not have adequate fire exits. According to 2015 research from New York University’s Stern School of Business, out of 3,425 inspections in Bangladesh that were held after the collapse, only eight addressed their violations fully enough to pass final inspections.

A commitment to transparency still remains a vital aspect of progress needed in the garment industry. Workers frequently experience abuse, while earning low wages, with Bangladesh’s minimum wage being 32 cents per hour.

Facing the powerful impact of the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, corporations and unions have come together to try to address the dangerous conditions found in Bangladesh’s garment industry (which is one of the world’s biggest). But for factories to move forward, businesses and human rights organizations will have to confront the negligence found within the system and recognize that fashion is not worth such a costly price.

We, as a globe, will need to see increased accountability and responsibility in the manufacturing places of clothing companies to learn from Rana Plaza and see workers’ conditions sustainably improve.

– Shira Laucharoen

Photo: Flickr

How Chemical Dyes are Harmful to Factory Workers in Underdeveloped Countries
Imagine looking out on an indigo river as the sun sets in the horizon, as beautiful and crimson as the river was the day before. You look down at your hands — they are colored a slight yellow tinge — as you reach for your water, which is brown and dirty. The sun sets and the sky resumes its greenish-yellow hue. The night begins for you and your family on yet another starless night.

For many families in the developing world, the story illustrated above has become a reality, and while the colors may differ, the reaction does not. Fabric dyes have put a new filter on the developing world, and it is not a flattering one.

When walking through a department store, the colors seem endless. You can see every hue of every color imaginable, perhaps even arranged in rainbow order; however, those colors never occur in nature and they are not something that can be grown on a tree. Most of the colors we see are a result of unnatural chemical dyes that have been added to our cloth in developing nations throughout the world.

While these dyes may produce beautiful colors, they can bring great harm to the societies in which they are produced. Many factories that use these dyes do not follow safety regulations and workers can find their skin dyed a certain hue depending on what is in style. Eventually, after prolonged exposure, their skin will begin to flake off, leading to a much higher rate of skin cancer. Aside from ignoring workers’ safety, many factories allow their run-off to flood into the local water supply, turning rivers various different colors. This high concentration of pollutants leads to the contamination, and ultimately the death, of all the organisms in the waters. Local citizens are forced to rummage through a selection of mercury-laden fish, which have a myriad of other contaminants within them. This water issue also spreads further, affecting all locally grown crops. Imagine living in a world where you cannot eat anything out of fear of the damage it would do to your body, but having to deal with it because there is no way to stop it.

Synthetic dyes used to create the beautiful array of colors also contain dioxin — a carcinogen and possible hormone disruptor — toxic heavy metals and often formaldehyde. Prolonged exposure to these toxins can be detrimental and even fatal, and when entire communities are affected by this, it is a wonder that more has not been done about it.

By looking at the labels of products we buy and avoiding overly dyed substances as well as those that are primarily synthetic, consumers may be able to make a small dent in the issues facing workers in the third world. These individuals need these jobs to keep themselves out of poverty, but they should also be kept in good health while doing them.

Sumita Tellakat

Sources: Green Cotton, Hesperian
Photo: Sean Gallagher Visuals

Chinese Food Safety
Perhaps the issue of food safety is among the most misunderstood aspects of global poverty. Not only does a lack of food safety cause health risks and life-threatening conditions, but it also disproportionately affects the poor. In the past several years, Chinese food safety, particularly in rural areas has been among the topics of discussion for food safety.

Some Chinese-made food products have been revealed to make people ill and even result in deaths. In 2008, tainted infant formula caused the deaths of six infants and kidney damage to hundreds more.

Exports with misleading labels and too many hormones and antibiotics have caused problems with American companies like Walmart and KFC.

With those who have the opportunities, many Chinese are opting to purchasing substitute products from outside of the country. However, the possibilities are predominantly limited to the wealthy class in China. Many of the poorer people are unable to afford the alternatives so they have to resort to buying the substandard Chinese products.

The food safety problems have had ripple effects on the Chinese economy. With consumer doubt on the rise, the contracts and workers are being threatened by the dissatisfaction.

In a New York Times article, Don Schaffner, a microbiology professor at Rutgers University, compared China’s food safety industry with the United States’s food industry pre-Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Much like the United States’ reform during the Progressive Era, China is expected to take similar steps to reform.

One of the solutions that China is actively working on is revising the health care standards and trying to reinforce them. Meeting the quality standards of many of the trade partners will help solidify the food economy in China.

The consistency of the quality of food is expected to affect the economy and the people alike. More faith in Chinese food and guaranteed health safety is set to increase the domestic economy and strengthen the credence in the Chinese food industry.

– Kristin Ronzi

Sources: NY Times, Zacks
Photo: NY Times

How to avoid getting sick overseas
As any traveler knows, after a long plane, train, and/or bus ride, all you want to do is take a shower, change your clothes, take a nap and get some grub! The last thing you want is to wind up back in bed or the bathroom with a sour stomach…or worse, the hospital. While there are several sources of health risk to travelers, the most common is contaminated food and water. Travelers trying exotic and exciting foods should follow these simple rules: cook it, wash it, peel it or forget it! And do not forget about ice. Freezing water does not remove contaminants and even alcoholic drinks are risky with contaminated ice.

There are several other sources of risk: poor sanitation and other diseases. Before you go, check out the World Health Organization (WHO) and with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for risks at your destination. It is also extremely important to get any vaccinations recommended for your destination. The CDC has detailed documentation on requirements for each country.

Many diseases and infections are transferable between people. Sick people are also an indication that there may be a disease source near by—such as insects or poor sanitation. It is also important to be aware of how much sun/cold/oxygen you are exposed to. Too much sun exposure can lead to severe sunburns and dehydration. Sun block is expensive and not a common feature in many developing countries’ convenience stores. Observe local customs for avoiding the extreme weather and bring sunblock with you.

Most importantly for food, however, cook it, wash it, peel it or forget it.

– Katherine Zobre

Source: CNN
Photo: Lee-Reid Family Travels