Deadly factory disasters in Bangladesh raise ethical questions


By Austin Andersen

How much money would you be willing to spend for a given article of clothing if you knew that the people who produced it did not have to fear dying on the job? Or, would you rather not think about that when looking for a bargain deal on your next pair of jeans?

The role of western responsibility for outsourced labor has been called into question following one of the worst tragedies in this history of the garment industry.

On the morning of April 24, an illegally constructed building housing multiple factories catering to Western businesses such as Wal-Mart, Disney and The Children’s Place in Savar, Bangladesh, crumbled to the ground leaving at least 600 dead and thousands more injured. The death toll continues to rise.

Reports gleaned from various online newspapers and watchdog sites have claimed how workers, just hours before the collapse, had refused to go due to large cracks in the eight-story cement building, which caused obvious concerns for their safety.

However, the threat of beatings and docked wages by factory goons for failing to go inside   the sweatshop forced these mostly female workers to reluctantly enter the building at 8 a.m. The factory collapsed an hour later.

The Obama administration and the European Union are expected to take steps to ensure that the Bangladeshi government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinu, step up to enforce the country’s labor laws as well as building and fire codes.

Being the world’s second largest apparel exporter, Hasinu is reluctant to enforce tighter regulations that would drive up costs to produce clothes. One may say necessary costs such as these should not be a factor when a Western company is deciding where to outsource its labor.

But in Bangladesh, where the garment industry employs 3.5 million workers and constitutes 80 percent of their $24 billion in annual exports, the need for companies to maintain trade relationships is a very real and dire concern for the government.

Textile production is important for Bangladesh as well as many other developing countries.

This tragedy does not come without precedent. Just a few months ago, another factory in a  nearby suburb, which provided goods for Wal-Mart, caught fire and killed 112 workers as it operated without a license.

The reason the license was withheld was due to inadequate fire safety measures such as fire escapes and other detection equipment. Apparently, the doors were kept locked during the work day to prevent laborers from taking breaks outside during their 13-hour-long shift.

This disaster raises serious ethical issues that must not only be addressed by the involved corporations, but the consumers as well. With everything else that goes on in our lives, how can we be certain that the clothes we buy are a result of sound labor practices?

As much as students love to complain about the food at Dutch or West, at least Sodexo reassures us that the coffee that keeps us studying through the night is protected by fair trade laws. How much more would we be willing to pay for this moral security? Unfortunately, many people may just rather not think about it. What solutions exist? Be a conscious consumer. It may not be cost effective.  It may not be trendy. But at least you can be content in knowing that you are not perpetuating similar tragedies from occurring.


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