The Bangladeshi government is liable for the lax building inspection and apparent culture of corruption that led a building to collapse this week, killing at least 200 people who had been ordered back inside despite orders to the contrary from local police and a trade association.
But the Western retailers who use labor from Bangladesh to provide cheap products for consumers cannot entirely escape responsibility, either. Neither can the many Americans who buy such products.
That's not a pleasant subject to raise, and it goes against the typical reaction to such tragedies, which is look elsewhere for blame or to regard it lightly as a problem far from home.
To be fair, there are complications. Americans cannot be faulted for buying inexpensive items they find on store shelves. Especially during a period of slow economic growth, cheap clothing and other items are important for people who are unemployed or have limited means.
For their part, clothing retailers often insist on safety inspections, but they rely on audits and inspections that, because of widespread corruption, are not reliable.
However, for the victims of the building collapse and their families these complications are meaningless. Coming on the heels of a fire last November that killed 112 people under similar conditions, this latest tragedy is added evidence that inhumane and unsafe conditions exist in many such factories in the region, and that people here are largely unaware as they benefit from such sacrifices.
It is instructive to remember that the United States once had similar problems. In 1911, 146 garment workers died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. These were mostly recent Jewish and Italian immigrants in their teens to early 20s. The doors had been locked to keep them from taking unauthorized breaks. Many of them leapt to their deaths to avoid the flames.
That tragedy was a catalyst for massive reforms in the United States, including laws about safety standards.
Bangladesh isn't likely to react in the same way. Therefore, it's up to businesses, whose money is so important to Bangladeshis, to insist on change, and consumers to insist the businesses do so.7 comments on this story
Two years ago the United Nations adopted guiding principles on business and human rights. These place responsibility for change jointly on businesses and the governments where such facilities exist. In a hotly competitive environment, only united action by major retailers will bring this about.
Whether specific retailers can be traced to the garment building that collapsed is irrelevant. Many of the most famous stores buy from similar outfits throughout the region. They must insist that independent inspections take place and that workers are accorded rights and basic dignities.
The screams of the injured and dying in Bangladesh are almost too horrible to contemplate. But when reports come to light indicating managers knew of deep cracks in walls, had been told by police to evacuate and yet forced workers back into the building, the suffering becomes infuriating. The Associated Press said the building was built on a foundation suitable for five floors, but that three floors were added illegally.
The victims may be thousands of miles removed from Americans, but they must not be forgotten.