The tragic Tazreen Fashions fire that killed more than 100 workers last week in Bangladesh rocked the retail garment industry. The garment factory supplied products to Wal-Mart and other retailers, although the giant retailer said that a supplier had subcontracted work to the factory without Wal-Mart’s knowledge. It has since fired that supplier. News reports have also identified other labels as belonging to Sears and celebrity designer Sean Combs, but Sears has disputed that finding, saying none of its products were manufactured at the plant.
The $490 billion global apparel manufacturing industry is highly dependent upon Asian factories to produce its products at low cost. Worker wages were around $38 a month at the Tazreen plant, for example. The US has outsourced most of its apparel manufacturing operations overseas except for a handful of companies that tout a “Made in America” label (American Apparel, for one). It’s not hyperbole to say that foreign labor runs the apparel industry.
But just as American retailers are dependent upon foreign manufacturers, these manufacturers are also dependent on the large chains that make up most of their customer base. Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Gap are hurrying to condemn the tragic fire and also to distance themselves from it by making statements that they did not contract out to Tazreen. According to the First Research industry report on apparel manufacturing, this dependence upon large retailers is one of the key issues that affect the global garment industry. It may be that the largest retailers in the world can band together and insist on safer worker conditions in the factories that supply their products so that they will not have to issue additional sad statements.
One hundred years ago, public outrage over the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire helped improve worker conditions. As a result, in the West, such tragedies are rare. Let’s wish for a like outcome for the Tazreen fire.