By Mike Lillis - 05/01/13 07:40 PM EDT
A freshman Democrat is urging top U.S. retailers to drop foreign contractors that don't protect their workers.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) said last week's deadly factory collapse in Bangladesh's garment district is a clear indication that some leading American companies, while profiting handsomely from the foreign labor, aren't doing nearly enough to ensure the safety of workers overseas.
"While I fully understand that American companies and foreign direct investment stimulates the local economy and provides jobs, it is the moral responsibility of American companies that procure goods within the country to ensure their suppliers operate safe factories," Meng, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote Monday.
"American companies should demand that their contracted suppliers correct all safety violations," she added, "and dismiss any contractor that places people's lives at risk."
She is not alone. Reps. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, and George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Education and Workforce panel, wrote to President Obama Wednesday calling for "immediate action" to better protect Bangladeshi workers from Western companies that might purchase garments "based solely on the cheapest price without regard to the conditions under which the garments are made."
"We urge your Administration to lead an effort, together with the European Union, to bring together key European and American retailers that have sourced from Bangladesh to adopt a common response leading to a universal standard guaranteeing basic workplace safety and fundamental worker rights," the Democrats wrote.
"That response," they added, "must also include effective monitoring."
Last week's collapse of the Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building located outside Bangladesh's capital of Dhaka, killed more than 400 workers, injured an estimated 2,500 others and renewed global concerns about worker protections in a country that's emerged as a favored manufacturing base for some of the world's largest retailers.
The disaster has also raised questions about whether those same global companies – including American retail giants like Wal-Mart, Gap and J.C. Penny – share any of the blame for industrial disasters at the foreign factories that produce the clothing and other merchandise that fills their stores.
While the low labor costs in developing countries translate into profits for company shareholders and savings for Western consumers, labor groups and other critics note that those benefits often come at the expense of human rights, worker safety and environmental health overseas.
An engineer inspecting the Rana building just one day before the collapse had reportedly warned the owner, Sohel Rana, that the structure was unsafe and should be evacuated. But Rana, 35, allegedly ignored that alarm, setting the stage for the April 24 tragedy – and Rana's subsequent arrest on charges of negligence.
The American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) released a statement this week calling worker safety "a top priority" for the industry group "because … all workers in the global apparel and footwear industry should be treated with fairness and respect."
"Creating a safe work environment is essential to this effort," AAFA CEO Kevin Burke said.
But labor and human rights groups contend that tragedies like the Rana Plaza collapse could be prevented if foreign workers were more free to organize – a move opposed by the major Western retailers.
“Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, workers could have refused to enter the building the day it collapsed,” Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said following the Dhaka disaster.
The tragedy is just the latest in a string of deadly accidents plaguing Bangladesh's garment industry in recent years. Three major building collapses in and around Dhaka killed a total of 116 people – mostly workers – between 2005 and 2010. And at least 112 workers died last November in a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory outside the Bangladeshi capital.
Nineteen months before the Tazreen fire, Wal-Mart had led a corporate push rejecting efforts to have multinational retailers help fund fire-safety improvements in Bangladeshi factories, The New York Times reported last year. A more recent proposal by labor groups to adopt universal worker-safety measures to govern Bangladesh's garment industry was also rejected by major Western retailers.
Wal-Mart issued a statement after the Rana collapse saying company leaders "remain committed to promoting stronger safety measures in factories, and that work continues."
A number of U.S. retailers, including Wal-Mart and Gap, have already met in the wake of the Rana tragedy to discuss strategies for preventing similar tragedies in the future, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.
Meanwhile, Meng and other human rights advocates are vowing to hold them responsible if they fall short of that goal.
"They should be aware," Meng wrote, "that American consumers and policy makers expect them to be accountable for their supply chains and will judge them as such in the future."