May 13, 2013 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

While the official death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh was still rising (it has now passed 1,100), a fire at another garment factory in Dhaka killed eight people. (If you haven’t yet seen Elizabeth Grossman’s post from Friday, she explores the reaction from the Asian Network for the Rigths of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV).) In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Magnier notes that although this latest disaster has spurred additional calls for reform, change will be a challenge:

The Bangladesh garment industry, a national golden goose, is politically well-connected. Clothing accounts for a whopping 80% of the country’s $24 billion in annual exports and employs 4 million people, with dozens of lawmakers closely linked to factory owners.

And though many Western apparel companies adopt codes of conduct, they’re keen to drive production costs down and maximize profit atop an industry of constantly changing subcontractors. Feeding all this are Western consumers looking for cheap deals.

The average wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is 10 to 30 cents an hour, labor activists say, and many of the factories lack fire escapes, windows or emergency exits.

Garment factory fires have been a recurrent problem in Bangladesh, killing about 700 people since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Last year, at least 110 people were killed in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory, with another eight killed in January.

Magnier reports that Bangladesh has announced temporary closures of 18 factories deemed to be dangerous and plans to hire 200 more building inspectors within six months.

For the Associated Press, Jonathan Fahey and Anne D’Innocenzio explain that it will be difficult for major brands to pull out of Bangladesh, because the country has enough workers and manufacturing capacity to reliably produce clothing at high volume and low prices. They also note that retailers rarely know where all of the pieces of a particular garment are produced, because contractors will subcontract out to many small factories.

Several major clothing retailers, including H&M, have just signed on to a legally binding plan under which retailers will help finance fire safety and building improvements in the Bangladesh factories that make their products. The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse reports:

Consumer and labor groups hailed the move by Sweden-based H&M – which is the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh – as an important step toward improving factory safety in Bangladesh, saying it would increase pressure on other Western retailers and apparel brands to do likewise.

Within hours of H&M’s Monday statement, C&A of the Netherlands and two British retailers, Primark and Tesco, also joined in.

The factory safety agreement calls for independent, rigorous factory safety inspections with public reports and mandatory repairs and renovations underwritten by Western retailers. A legally enforceable contract, it also calls for retailers to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements, and for workers and their unions to have a substantial voice in factory safety.

In other news:

MSNBC: Over 100 workers from roughly 30 different St. Louis fast-food restaurants walked off the job, as part of a campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage and win the chance to unionize without intimidation. (For more background, see Josh Eidelson’s Salon piece on St. Louis fast-food workers.)

Washington Post: Retired NFL players often require extensive, costly medical care years after their football careers end and the league stops providing their health insurance. The NFL disability board denies nearly 60% of disability claims.

Huffington Post: In an op-ed, US Representative Gwen Moore and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker warn that House Republicans’ “Working Families Flexibility Act” gives employers flexibility not to pay overtime. “In reality, this bill would provide more work and less pay,” they write.

Los Angeles Times: Cal/OSHA has fined Bumble Bee Foods almost $74,000 for violations related to the death of Jose Melena, 62, who was burned to death inside an industrial pressure cooker.

NIOSH Science Blog: For Women’s Health Week, researchers take a look at women in the workplace and summarize findings: “Women generally have more work-related cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, and anxiety and stress disorders,” and health hazards related to reproductive health and pregnancy are also a concern.

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