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In our opinion: Everyone should have safe working conditions

Published: Thursday, May 30 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Pairs of brand new denim jeans are strewn over rubble from the collapsed garment factory building, Saturday, May 4, 2013 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the aftermath of last week's building collapse that killed more than 530 people, Bangladesh's garment manufacturers may face a choice of reform or perish. Home to five factories that supplied clothing to retailers in Europe and the United States, the shoddily constructed building's collapse has put a focus on the high human price paid when Bangladeshi government ineptitude, Western consumer apathy and global retailing's drive for the lowest cost of production intersect.

Wong Maye-E, Associated Press

News reports tell of a "garment factory" collapsing in Bangladesh several weeks ago, killing 1,100 people in the process. In this case, "garment factory" is something of a euphemism. The more accurate, albeit less genteel term for the horrific environment in which these people worked would be "sweatshop."

This collapse is just one of several deadly incidents that have taken place in these low-cost-labor sweatshops. Just last November, a fire killed 112 people in a similar facility. As Bangladesh is now the second-biggest exporter of clothing in the world, there is the appalling potential for plenty of future disasters.

No human being should be compelled to work under such conditions. This needs to stop.

Some have suggested closing down the sweatshops altogether, but solving the problem isn't that simple. While the wages paid in such plants are far lower than any paid here in the United States, they are higher than much of the work available to Bangladeshis, who would find themselves unemployed and even further impoverished if the factories went away. So if the facilities are to remain in operation, it is imperative that conditions in these factories be improved, beginning with ensuring the basic safety of the employees.

That's why we applaud the efforts of retailers around the world who have banded together to create an alliance that will oversee building and fire safety in Bangladesh's burgeoning garment industry. The details of the final agreement are still being negotiated, but it seems likely that critical major U.S. retailers eventually will sign onto the plan, which many European companies have already adopted. Bangladeshis are hopeful that this will improve not just safety conditions, but economic opportunities for the country at large.

Mohammad Atiqul Islam, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters association, said he believed that "this decision will motivate other big buyers across the West and the U.S.A. to join their hands with us."

Perhaps that's true. But if more in the West decide to join hands with Bangladesh, the goal should be to provide a hand up to help lift the country out of poverty. For too long, companies have been engaged in a race to the bottom to find the cheapest labor on the planet, regardless of the degradation of the people they exploit.

An accord among retailers that ensures basic safety is a very good first step in the right direction. But it is only a first step.

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