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Dozens of Bangladesh workers making clothes for the U.S. market were killed in a factory fire last month. Debate over the safety of apparel makers and what can be done to improve conditions.
- Steven Greenhouse Labor and workplace reporter, The New York Times
- Scott Nova Executive director, Workers Rights Consortium
- Kalpona Akter Labor activist, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity
- Alice Tepper Marlin Founder and president, Social Accountability International
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. More than 700 Bangladeshis have died in garment factory fires in the past decade, and the September blaze at a factory in Pakistan killed more than 250 workers. Critics say major retailers should pay higher prices for safety upgrades like sprinklers and fire doors. But companies argue Western consumers demand cheap clothing above all else.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about growing concerns over worldwide factory conditions: Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium, from an NPR studio in New York City, Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times, and joining us by phone from New York, Alice Tepper Marlin of Social Accountability International. I hope you'll join in the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And good morning to all of you.
MR. SCOTT NOVAGood morning.
MS. ALICE TEPPER MARLINGood morning.
MR. STEVEN GREENHOUSEGood morning.
REHMSteven Greenhouse, if I could start with you, you've written about working conditions in Bangladesh. How did things get so bad there and in other South Asian countries?
GREENHOUSEThey, Diane, are very poor. You know, a lot of them had been very poor countries, largely agricultural. As part of their economic development, as you've seen in Japan, South Korea, China, they started emphasizing manufacturing to help rise up the international scale of economic development. And Bangladesh has been very successful in luring many apparel firms because it has the lowest wages really of any manufacturing company in the -- country in the world. Its minimum wage is $37 a month.
GREENHOUSESo a lot of firms that had been producing in China have decided that China is too expensive, so they're flocking to Bangladesh. But the problem is, you know, Bangladesh, the government does very, very little to enforce labor and safety laws, and there's a monitoring system that has been formed to visit to inspect factories to hopefully hold factories to minimum standards. But what we've seen in this horrid Tazreen fire, in which at least 112 people died, was that the monitoring missed some things.
GREENHOUSEThey found some things, but a lot of companies even ignore what the monitors found and left -- you know, the reason the Tazreen factory started was this gross violation of the law. They were keeping their storage of yarn right on the ground floor next to the electrical generator. So it was inevitable almost that there'd be this horrendous fire, and the yarn should have been kept in a separate warehouse. And it boggles the mind that the inspectors, the monitors who visited that factory, did not see this huge violation.
REHMHelp me to understand why the factory managers locked the doors and sealed the exits.
GREENHOUSEWell, the -- I wrote a story with my colleague in Pakistan, Declan Walsh, about the factory fire back in September at Ali Enterprises in Karachi. And he interviewed a Pakistani monitor who visited the factory several times, and he said he had a seen a locked fire exit. And it was much like the story at the horrendous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in 1911, both at Ali Enterprises and at Triangle Shirtwaist where 114 workers died.
GREENHOUSEThe managers locked the exit because they were scared that employees would steal goods from them. And in each case, there was a fire. In each case, this blocked exit resulted in the deaths of many, many workers. Why do managers do this? You know, I will use the crass word greed. They, you know, they are so worried that some of their valuable goods will be stolen that they're willing to lock the exit door at the peril of workers' lives.
REHMScott Nova, how closely does it resemble what happened at that Shirtwaist factory fire?
NOVAExtremely close. So you have in Bangladesh an industry that is not being regulated by the government and factories that are being placed under tremendous pressure by their customers, like Wal-Mart and Gap and H&M, to produce at the lowest possible cost. The brands and retailers know that that pressure will result in the factory's exploding lawless environment to reduce costs by running roughshod over the rights of workers.
NOVAThat's why you get sub-poverty wages. That's why you get deadly working conditions. It's exactly what the situation was in 1911 in New York at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. In fact, you could say that the contemporary apparel industry has accomplished a perverse form of time travel. They've recreated 1911 working conditions in 2012 Bangladesh and Pakistan.
REHMSo after that Shirtwaist fire, conditions improved tremendously.
NOVAIndeed. That fire galvanized a social reform movement that ultimately transformed the U.S. apparel industry from a sweatshop industry to one defined by safe workplaces and middle-class wages. Unfortunately, the apparel industry eventually responded to that by shifting the production to other countries where they are not inconvenienced by the kinds of regulatory strictures that we have here.
REHMAlice Tepper Marlin, you've written a book titled "Shopping for a Better World," and yet, I mean, here we have these various manufacturers, various companies who do not seem to be interested in conditions that help their employees be safe. Instead, they're simply shopping for lower prices.
MARLINYeah, that's what we did, "Shopping for a Better World," and you kindly interviewed me over several years about that book that put in the hands of consumers an ability to distinguish between greedy companies that overrode providing safe and decent conditions and advancement for minorities and women, safe treatment of the welfare of animals and a whole range of issues, and to shop at the companies that did a better job. The title was never meant to say all companies are providing a better world.
MARLINThere are big differences out there. I'd like to begin with a quote from one of the union members of our board of directors that says the reason that social campaigners have demanded that household name buyer companies in the industrialized world -- that's U.S., Europe -- require proper labor conditions, is that in so many parts of the world main stream labor relations did not always work. Mature industrial relations systems are not the norm.
MARLINGovernments often do not enforce their own labor laws, and corruption is rampant. If the large Western buyers would now give up their corporate social responsibility programs, especially in areas where trade unions are not able to operate freely, the result would regrettably be that workers in the supply chains would lose all protection. What Social Accountability International does primarily is not auditing.
MARLINAuditing establishes baseline measure. Some organizations certify for compliance to the standard, and that can be useful where it's accurate. But certification itself isn't a guarantee. Rigorous inspections can't always control for corruption or for inadequate legislation. And where poverty runs deep and regulation is unlikely -- by the way, I'm not quoting from the labor leader anymore.
MARLINRegulation is unlikely. Standards are one of the few mechanisms for improving social and environmental practices. We're not about cut and run, which is what a lot of companies do. They find a problem, so they take their work -- their orders away. Campaigners may expose it. There's a big brouhaha, and workers are left without a job, back to the rural economy, in abject poverty that Steve so well began this discussion with. Let me give you an example.
MARLINWe began under a Ford Foundation grant about 12 years go, working with the International Textile Labor and Garment Workers' Union, and we trained workers in nine different countries to -- who each trained another group of workers. And what these codes, what companies might do to help assure decent conditions in their supply chain, what the problems were, how do they lodge complaints, how do they lodge complaints internally at the company where they work, how do they lodge complaints with the government when that doesn't work.
MARLINJust recently, we were brought in to El Salvador, at a company called Impression Apparel there. Conditions were very poor. It was a violation of the company -- the buying company's code and SA8000. The buyer was about to terminate and withdraw all orders from that factory. Eight hundred jobs would have been lost. Instead, what they did is bring in us and another organization, and together, we formed teams that included the workers, implemented factory systems, established joint committees, addressed problems.
MARLINAnd the results were really good. Not only did we make substantive improvements in providing decent work at that factory, but surveys showed that worker satisfaction went way up. And we used something called the Social Fingerprint program to get a baseline rating. We got the company and workers and managers together to commit to make improvements. We were there for 18 months.
MARLINAnd you got 180-degree transformation in that factory through regular dialogue, through implementing systems for complaints, through addressing problems that workers raised. The big brand name U.S. company then restored orders, and it's now a stable company operating in compliance. And we've recently heard that they're pursuing an SA8000 certification. Now the conditions are decent.
REHMAlice Tepper Marlin, she is founder and president of Social Accountability International and co-author of "Shopping for a Better World." When we come back, we'll talk about some of the American companies ordering these garments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about clothing manufactured overseas, the conditions that workers are under, the recent fires that took place in both Bangladesh and Pakistan. Here in the studio, Scott Nova, executive director of Workers Rights Consortium. Joining us from New York City from an NPR studio, Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times. He concentrates on labor and workforce reporting.
REHMAnd by phone, from New York City, Alice Tepper Marlin, founder and president of Social Accountability International and co-author of "Shopping for a Better World." Scott Nova, describe for us how manufacturers go about buying clothes from overseas.
NOVAWell, the major brands and retailers in the U.S., whether it's Wal-Mart or Gap or J.C. Penney or Target, seek out the lowest-cost places in the world to produce. They operate a system in which they have short-term contracts with local contract factories. They constantly hop from factory to factory and country to country in search of lower prices.
NOVAAnd so they create this hypercompetitive environment between the contract factories that are competing desperately for the business of the brands and looking for any possible means to reduce production costs. They do it by ignoring the rights of workers. And unfortunately, countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan are giving the brands and retailers in the U.S. and Europe exactly what they want, which is clothing produced at an extremely low price but with horrific consequences for the workers who make the clothing.
REHMAnd, Steven Greenhouse, how did this subcontractor problem play out in the Wal-Mart Bangladesh factory fire?
GREENHOUSESo we had this situation where there was this horrible fire two weeks ago at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, 112 workers died. Documents that were found by a worker advocacy group in Bangladesh show that four different suppliers to Wal-Mart were making products at that factory for Wal-Mart and its Sam's Club subsidiary. And at one point in September, 60 percent of the whole factory's production was for Wal-Mart.
GREENHOUSEYet when the fire occurred right after it, Wal-Mart said, we didn't know we -- that anyone was producing for us at the factory. Wal-Mart said it had de-authorized -- stopped authorizing production at the factory "many months before." And Wal-Mart says, well, the subcontractors turned over these orders to other subcontractors. They are very naughty. We didn't know about it. And you can't blame us because we didn't know.
GREENHOUSEAnd, you know, Wal-Mart is famous for having the world's most sophisticated global supply chain working at, you know, thousands of factories in many countries and keeping great tabs on anything. And several people I've interviewed have said that it, you know, strains credulity to think that Wal-Mart, which, you know, is so normally on top of its global supply chain didn't know what these subcontractors were doing.
GREENHOUSEAnd as Scott Nova said, in this huge push to produce at the lowest rate, you know, one subcontractor will look to another subcontractor that might know a factory where wage rates are very low and maybe there are minimum wage violations, maybe they don't pay time and a half for overtime, and this whole constant push to find the very, very lowest rate. And that's where, you know, Alice's monitoring is supposed to play a role.
GREENHOUSEAnd as Alice said, in Pakistan and in Bangladesh, the government does way, way, way too little to enforce labor and safety laws. Unions in both countries are really suppressed, so it's hard for a legitimate trade union movement to really step up and improve wages and conditions there. So then the monitors are supposed to -- like Social Accountability International and the groups working with them are supposed to help ensure that basic standards are met.
GREENHOUSEAnd while, what Alice said, there are very good examples as what happened in El Salvador and the stories I worked on with my colleagues in Bangladesh and Pakistan, many, many analysts told us that too often the monitors fail to find important things like minimum wage violations, overtime violations, yarn placed dangerous places and locked exits.
REHMSo you wrote that the plant in Pakistan had been certified safe. Yet how is it that 262 workers died there at Ali Enterprises?
GREENHOUSEYou know, several academic experts on factories and factory monitoring, you know, whom my colleagues and I interviewed, said that there's kind of a bias toward granting certification -- granting a good housekeeping seal of approval because a lot of the monitoring firms are for-profit businesses, and they want to win future businesses. You know, they want more and more factories to ask them, please come and monitor us, because they get paid for that.
GREENHOUSEAnd so that kind of creates a tilt to maybe be more lenient because then you get a reputation that, ah, this is the firm we want to hire to monitor us. And in Pakistan, as we wrote in our front-page story last Saturday, there was this weird government subsidy system where when you inspect factories and give them the Social Accountability International's SA8000 certification, you get a subsidy of $4,200, but only if you give a passing grade, only if you certify them.
REHMAh. I see.
GREENHOUSESo if you give a thumbs down, you get nothing. If you certify them, then you and the company will get to share this $4,200. And again, several people we interviewed in Pakistan said that really tilts the scales in favor of certification. And our sense is that's what happened when the inspector went to Ali Enterprises. He granted them a clean bill of health just three weeks before a fire that killed 262 people.
NOVAYes. I mean, the brands and retailers know that their customers don't want goods to be made in sweatshops. So they claim that they are policing labor practices in their contract factories. But the reality is that this kind of industry-led and controlled factory monitoring that Alice was talking about has failed abjectly to protect the rights and the safety of workers.
NOVAAll of these recent fires -- the Pakistan fire, the fire just after Thanksgiving at Tazreen Fashions, a factory in December 2010 also in Bangladesh, at a factory producing for Gap and other brands -- all of those factories were repeatedly inspected under industry-controlled monitoring programs. And yet those programs failed to do anything to make those factories safer.
NOVAAnd, of course, you see the logical extreme of this in the certification of the Ali Enterprise's factory three weeks before one of the worst factory fires in the history of the global apparel industry certified under the SA8000 system that Alice's organization oversees. And what you see here is that we have a fundamental problem.
NOVAAnd what it is is that this essentially is a system of corporate self-regulation in which brands and retailers like Wal-Mart and Gap and H&M have set up their own systems that they control to ostensibly police these factories. But there's no accountability and there's no transparency.
REHMAlice, no accountability?
MARLINYes. A couple of questions -- of comments on that, number one, something like where the yarn is stored is clearly a gross violation that, if it had happened when monitors, even the best in the world, were in the factory, should've been easy to find, should've been a non-compliance, should've prevented any kind of a passing grade or certification. But these are things that can be moved easily when the monitors aren't there. And neither auditors nor monitors are in the factory every day.
MARLINWhat's really needed to be able to see whether doors are locked when the auditors aren't there, whether they're auditors from businesses or inspectors from the government is for workers to be educated, empowered and unthreatened to be able to identify these things, point them out and get them fixed. And unless the workers can do that, it's...
REHMBoy, Alice, how do you get to...
MARLIN...not going to work.
REHMBut how do you get to that for the workers? Wouldn't a worker who takes that admonition actually lose his or her job?
MARLINYes, that's exactly -- you're exactly right, Diane. That's why in some of these regions and areas and sectors, it is almost impossible to get this job done right. You know, it's not KISS. It's not, keep it simple, stupid. It's really hard to do. In Pakistan, in the -- in Punjab and then in the area where this factory that was burned, where the fire occurred, the government abolished all labor inspections in 2003.
MARLINThat means, for nearly a decade, by official policy, with official announcement, the government said, we want business, so we're going to -- we're not going to do any labor inspections. We're not going to do fire inspections.
REHMBut, Scott Nova...
MARLINWe're not going to inspect for any other aspect of labor law.
MARLINSo how do you operate there? What's done? And these problems -- you know, sometimes there is corruption in the private sector, but it's not only driven by corporations. You know, let's not just do an anti-business greed here. There's corruption in government.
REHMYeah, but at the same time -- OK.
MARLINGovernment inspectors are often bribed...
MARLIN...or would take bribes, are often afraid to stand up to management and...
REHMOK. Alice, hold on.
MARLIN...in Pakistan, they're afraid to get killed.
REHMOK. Hold on a minute. What is the responsibility of companies, corporations like Wal-Mart and others? Couldn't they spend a certain amount of money to improve conditions at those factories, Scott?
NOVAIndeed they could.
NOVAAt a very modest additional cost, these large brands and retailers who are profiting from the work of workers in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan could ensure the safety of those workers. You know, I attended a meeting in the spring of 2011 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the capital.
NOVAAfter the fire in 2010 that killed 29 workers at a factory producing for Gap and other brands, and along with other labor rights groups and unions at the meeting, we implored the numerous brands and retailers in attendance to commit to pay modestly higher prices in order to make it possible for these factories to engage in repairs and renovations that would enable them to operate safely. And the...
REHMAnd this was the 3 percent solution?
NOVAYes. And a senior executive from Wal-Mart stood up at the meeting and said, we are not going to pay. And the reality is it simply costs more to produce under good and safe conditions than it costs to produce under bad and unsafe conditions. And until and unless these brands and retailers are willing to take responsibility, increase the prices for the factories and actually make sure the factories use that money to make themselves safe, we're going to see more fires and more deaths.
REHMYou know, it does take me back to that Shirtwaist fire and labor conditions that were in existence at the time. Labor organizations said they couldn't manufacture without child labor, and finally those laws were changed.
NOVANo, that's exactly right. Anyone -- any time someone talks about a reform, there's always going to be companies standing up and saying, it can't be done. We need child labor. We can't spend more money to make factories safe. But the reality is, for less than 10 cents per garment, less than 10 cents per article of clothing, the big brands and retailers like Wal-Mart and Gap and H&M could ensure safe factories in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh. The question is, will they?
REHMSo from your point of view, Steven Greenhouse, in the investigation that you have done, where does the responsibility lie? Of course, I think Alice is absolutely right that the governments involved have their own share of the blame, but what about the corporations?
GREENHOUSEBefore I answer that, you know, I grew up in New York. I was very cognizant of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Both of my grandfathers worked in the apparel industry. And it's kind of is amazing that here we are 101 years later and all these American companies are rushing to use, you know, factories in Asia without some of the very basic things that we here in the United States --very, very elementary, basic things that we here require in the United States such as fire escapes on a factory, let's say, more than three stories tall.
GREENHOUSEAt the Tazreen factory, when the fire broke out, you know, it started on the ground floor, so the people trying to come down the staircases inside the factory really couldn't because there was so much smoke and heat. A lot of them died from smoke inhalation. Again, they didn't have a very, very basic safety precaution like, you know, smoke-proof enclosed staircases so that one could escape in the event of a fire. These are very basic things, yet American companies choose to work at these factories, to use these factories that lack these very basic precautions. Now, American companies say, we do enough.
GREENHOUSEWe're having these monitors check the factories, and when monitors find that there are problems at the factories, we won't cut and run. We'll work with the factories to improve. Now, some critics will say that some companies like Wal-Mart just take way, way, way too long, give the companies way too much leeway to clean up their act. You know, Wal-Mart gives companies an orange grade if they find serious violations and a red if it finds huge violations. And companies that get orange violations basically have 18 months to clean up their so-called higher risk violations.
REHMAll right. And you're...
GREENHOUSEAnd the feeling is that the monitoring system just isn't tough enough, and that's why groups like Scott's and the International Labor Rights Forum are saying, we need the companies to step up to the plate right now to make sure that garment manufacturers have the money they need to invest and improve electrical and fire safety.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want our listeners to know that we contacted several retailers to come on to the program. They did not respond to us. Alice, how do you respond to what you've just heard from both Scott and Steven?
MARLINYeah. It is a heartbreak that we haven't yet seen the lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire applied worldwide. I also have family history there. My husband's great aunt was Inez Milholland. She was a lawyer who helped defend the victims, people who were injured in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the families of people who died. She was outside watching 'cause she'd been working with the unions that were trying to get improved conditions. But -- and we have these wonderful reforms, and that's what should happen in Pakistan. It didn't happen overnight.
MARLINIt happened fairly quickly in New York State. But it actually wasn't until Frances Perkins came up to head up the Department of Labor -- not right after 2012 on a federal level, but when FDR came in, just at the beginning of the New Deal -- that finally the U.S. Department of Labor got teeth to enforce those labor laws. Some of the -- you know, I hear Scott continuing to throw Gap into this discussion. The reality here is that Gap, for a number of quite rational reasons, after two years of negotiations over the very proposal that is being promoted here...
REHMAll right. We've got to take a short break here, Alice. I'm going to ask you to finish that thought when we come back.
REHMAnd just before the break, Alice, you were talking about the Gap and the fact that Scott Nova has referred to the Gap as one of the corporations involved here.
MARLINYeah. The question is that Gap is one of the real leaders in the field. They're one of the companies that has put a lot of money into it. They don't want to join Scott's program, but Tchibo -- both of them are members of SAI. Tchibo has joined. It's one of only two companies in the entire world who've agreed to join Scott's program, even though for two years they've been trying to recruit companies.
MARLINPossibly, this will prove more effective than other programs. We will see. But it's been two years just trying to even detail it out and get companies to cooperate with them. But Gap is a leader. Gap has itself announced and begun and started to implement a program committing more than $20 million working just in Bangladesh, just on the fire safety issue.
MARLINAnd that El Salvador factory I talked about, that was Gap that did that. It was Gap that brought us in to spend 18 months and to save 800 jobs and make them decent jobs instead of jobs that the company didn't want associated with.
REHMAll right, Scott Nova.
NOVASure, I just want to outline what we're asking brands and retailers to do. In alliance with virtually every labor union in the apparel industry in Bangladesh and with unions and labor rights groups from around the world, we have asked companies like Gap and Wal-Mart and H&M to make a binding commitment to ensure that their factories undertake the repairs and renovations necessary to become safe in Bangladesh, including a process of generally independent inspections with published results so the public and the workers know what the inspectors find, mandatory repairs and renovations and enforceable commitment from the brands and retailers that they will raise prices as needed to enable the factories to actually implement these repairs.
NOVAThis is what Gap has refused to agree to. They will not sign a binding agreement. They will not agree to raise prices as needed to make these factories safe. PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, to their credit, has agreed to do it. And just one correction to Alice's point, we're not seeking to recruit companies. Frankly, any program that will really work to bring about the kind of reform we need is not something companies are going to voluntarily join. We are trying to pressure companies to do the right thing because only pressure will bring them around.
REHMAll right. Here's an email for you, Steven Greenhouse, from Rose in Florida, who says, "I'd like to know if the factory owners are becoming incredibly wealthy because of not spending for safety? Or are they just barely hanging in financially and would go out of business because of the increased expense they would have?"
GREENHOUSEThat's a very good question, Diane. I don't know how well the owner of the Tazreen -- how wealthy the owner of the Tazreen factory is. It is an extremely competitive business, and they really attract business by -- attract orders by holding their cost down. And I would imagine, you know, for a factory like Tazreen, if they had to invest $500,000 in all sorts of fire safety, new electrical wiring, that would be a lot of money for a factory that size, and it might put them at a competitive disadvantage.
GREENHOUSEI think that's why people are saying Western retailers like H&M, Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl's, we need your financial help. We need your financial muscle to help pay for these investments. We need you to commit -- to put up the money, and that might mean, yes, shoppers might have to pay .5 percent or 1 percent more for their apparel. And that would provide these factory owners with the wherewithal, perhaps, hopefully to really improve factories so we will never see anything again like the two horrific fires we've seen over the past three months.
REHMAlice, how do you react to Scott's idea of a 3 percent tax on clothing retailers?
MARLINWell, I think it's interesting. I would love to see 3 percent more go to the workers. The problem is, how do you make such a system work? I mean, actually Scott and I have been discussing this possible idea along with others for a decade. But the question is sometimes the price that's paid now is going to an employer who is enormously wealthy. They're the 1 percent in their own country.
MARLINThey have -- I mean, I've seen cases where they've got a separate nurse maid for every one of their six children and, you know, big bank accounts in Switzerland, and they're still exploiting their workers, not making the workplace safe, paying ridiculously low prices, working people 80 hours a week.
MARLINIn other cases, like just as Steve said, they're really struggling -- maybe they were just a worker themselves eight years ago. And they finally got to start up a little factory themselves, and it did well. So actually assuring that that 3 percent or whatever percent it was actually went to the workers and that it was needed to treat workers decently is a very difficult thing to monitor. We'd like to see this experiment of it.
REHMSo who would enforce this agreement, Scott?
NOVAThe agreement would be enforced by unions and labor rights organizations through a binding contract with the brands and retailers like the one that PVH, the owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, signed in March of this year because for a decade we have seen this model of voluntary self-regulation that Alice and others have advocated as the only means of trying to regulate these factories, and it's been a dismal failure.
NOVAWe need accountability from the brands and retailers, not rhetoric about corporate social responsibility, not pilot projects that they can tout. We need binding contractual commitments that organizations that represent workers can enforce, if necessary, in a court of law.
REHMAll right. I want to take a caller in Charlottesville, Va. Curtis, you're on the air.
CURTISHi, everybody. Diane, thanks for taking my call.
CURTISI love your show. I'd like to start off by saying that, you know, I boycott Wal-Mart. I boycott most of these fast, low-price chains. But, unfortunately, so many people in this country right now, especially with the economy, the way it is, need these lower prices. And I understand that a very moderate raise in prices by these companies would probably help alleviate a lot of these fires or these -- all of these infractions. But people do really need these low prices.
REHMSo, Steven Greenhouse, how does one balance this whole idea of lower prices with worker safety? It's been done in this country. How do we translate that to other countries?
GREENHOUSECurtis asked a very good question, and we've heard similar arguments, you know, 80, 100 years ago when our nation was considering whether to enact a minimum wage bill -- minimum wage law. And businesses would say, that will put us out of business, and it will raise prices for clothing and other goods that the poor so dearly need. And the argument on the other side is, we need to pay our workers enough so that they're not starving and so they can afford what they need to feed their families.
GREENHOUSEAnd that argument is similar to what we're hearing in Bangladesh. I think the, you know, the labor rights groups say that there should be a minimum level of standards on wages, on -- and on fire and that no one should be producing apparel -- no worker should be put -- no worker's life should be put at risk unless these basic standards are met. And if that means that Americans or people in France or Britain or Germany are going to pay a few cents more for an undershirt or for a pair of pants, well, that's how the world should be.
GREENHOUSEBecause for the fairness of these workers who are often heavily exploited, who earn often $37 a month, you know, we -- Western consumers who benefit from the fruits of their labor, you know, should try to make sure that they at least have minimum wages and minimum fire standards so that we don't see to such -- you know, it's amazing -- I did research after the Ali Enterprise's fire, Diane. And as far as I could tell, it was the very worst factory fire in world history in terms of deaths.
GREENHOUSEI couldn't find any other fire where more than 300 people died. And this is really a signal event, in many ways, in world manufacturing history. And I guess I'm surprised that many companies seem to maintain -- seem to want to maintain the status quo and say, well, we'll just get a little tougher to subcontracts -- subcontractors to make sure that they don't use factories that we haven't approved.
GREENHOUSEAnd I think this...
GREENHOUSEI think this really is a time for people to, you know, step back and at the same time step up, and say, what are we going to do to make sure we don't have more Triangle factory fires in this day and age?
REHMSo Martha in Massachusetts has emailed, "Scott, could you name some good companies to buy inexpensive clothing from?"
NOVAUnfortunately, there are very few. And, you know, I noted PVH, which has made the commitments that labor rights group are seeking in terms of fire safety in Bangladesh. You know, we work with a company called Knights Apparel, which has launched a new clothing brand called Alta Gracia. They make university logo sweatshirts and T-shirts sold online and in campus stores across the country, the only factory we know producing for export to the United States from the developing world that pays a genuine living wage to workers. That's an important experience being pursued.
NOVAThere are some companies like Justice Clothing that produce here in the United States. But the reality is that the model that Wal-Mart has perfected, its global outsourcing model, designed to squeeze every conceivable penny of cost out of the system, has, in fact, been embraced by virtue of the entire apparel industry. And so I wish I could, but I cannot point to any major brand or retailer that has a supply chain in which workers are paid a living wage and don't have to take their life into their hands when they go to work in the morning. That's why we need very fundamental change.
REHMAll right. To Farmington, N.H. Good morning, Dan.
DANHi. Good morning. Great show as always, and thank you for bringing some attention to this. It occurs to me that the reason this continues to happen is because the American consumer or the Western consumer doesn't see it. Sure, we're all cognitively aware that this sort of thing happens, but it's not right there in our faces. And a lot of people who don't need lower prices go to Wal-Mart because it's fair, it's convenient, it's got all manner of every kind of product you could want, and they could genuinely afford to shop around for a little bit better social responsibility.
DANWe could solve this problem overnight with the political will, which is never going to happen. But any time there is a demonstrable fatality that could have been prevented by modern Western safety standards, all of the products produced by that manufacturer should then have to carry a clear and conspicuous label, X number of foreign Third World slave laborers killed to bring you the lowest possible price.
REHMThat sounds pretty dramatic.
NOVAWell, that would certainly have an impact. You know, one of the purposes of this outsourcing model is to distance consumers from reality under which the clothes their buying are produced. You have a shell game in which companies like Wal-Mart outsource to factories, pressure those factories to produce at extremely low cost, creating sub-poverty wages and dangerous working conditions.
NOVAAnd then when something is exposed, like this gruesome fire right after Thanksgiving, Wal-Mart tries to distance itself from the factory, claiming it was unauthorized production, and then tries to reassure everyone that they've got it under control. They're doing inspections. They're going to find some ways to improve the inspections and hope that consumers will go back to business as usual. The caller is exactly right. What will ultimately force these companies to change policy is when they conclude that 19th-century working conditions are unacceptable to their customers in the 21st century.
REHMScott Nova of Workers Rights Consortium...
MARLINWe need to look a little more broadly than what's happening here because we have...
REHM...and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Alice, you want to say something.
MARLINYes. Thank you. Sorry to interrupt you, Diane. You know, there is a significant role for American brands and American consumers. We've met -- as Pogo said, we've met the enemy and they is us. You know, a lot of Americans are looking for cheaper prices, and they've got reason to. Generally, research shows that if consumers know, they are actually willing to buy identical products at a higher price. There's some great research out of Harvard showing that.
MARLINBut the important thing -- and SAI has never, by the way, despite Scott's statement, never said that voluntary efforts and what companies should do is the only thing there should be. We have always advocated government enforcement of its law. We've always advocated the important role of trade unions and that they should be able to organize and protect workers freely.
MARLINBut where are things that really worked? For example, the -- on the average, the export factories tend to have better conditions than many of the domestic factories. So this isn't all the fault of American and European consumers. There are consumers and companies locally. But one of the things we do is work locally when it has nothing to do with the export sector and nothing to do with American brands. For instance, Tata -- Tata is a global company. It's based in India. It's one of the best employers in India or in the world.
MARLINBut when they went through implementing SA8000 at Tata Steel a few years ago, a place that had 20,000 people working there, they realized through the clauses about contractual labor in the SA8000 standard that the good working conditions were delivered to their own direct employees but not to the thousands and thousands and thousands of workers who were on the Tata Steel site doing construction, delivering services, doing cleaning, a whole variety of subcontracted activities.
MARLINAnd when they implemented SA8000, which doesn't allow that, they went through a process over a couple of years of working with those subcontractors. And now, all of the people working at this main Tata's -- the largest Tata Steel plant have good wages, annual medical coverage, good medical insurance, the whole panoply of decent work that Tata offers to its own employee.
REHMAll right. Scott Nova.
MARLINAn example of improving conditions for 10,000 workers...
REHMHold on. Hold on, Alice.
MARLIN...have nothing to do with Americans.
REHMAlice, Alice, please hold on a moment and let Scott talk.
NOVAUnfortunately, we have tried this model of corporate voluntarism, a voluntary self-regulation. Now, we're going on 20 years, and it doesn't work, which is why people continue to die in fires. We need accountability from these brands and retailers. We need binding agreements that can be enforced, and that is something that the brands and retailers like Wal-Mart, like Gap, like H&M are resisting with great vigor.
NOVAAnd because there is so much extremely productive media attention right now on this issue, there is an opportunity to achieve change now. But what's going to happen in the weeks ahead is that the brands and retailers and their defenders are going to defend the status quo, say they're going to make some modest improvements in their inspection programs, claim they've got it under control in order to resist deeper change. That's what we have to prevent from happening.
REHMScott Nova, executive director of Workers Rights Consortium, Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, and Alice Tepper Marlin, founder and president of Social Accountability International, co-author of "Shopping for a Better World," thanks to all of you for doing the work you've done and for keeping this issue alive. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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