After Bangladesh, Dem says US retailers have 'blood on their labels'

A leading House Democrat is accusing giant U.S. retailers like Walmart and Gap of being complicit in overseas industrial disasters like the one that killed more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh in April.

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Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, returned this week from a lengthy trip examining Bangladesh's garment industry with a damning verdict: American companies have not only ignored poor factory conditions like those that led to April's tragedy, he said, they've encouraged them in order to maximize profits.

"They have led this race to the bottom for many years," Miller said Friday in a phone call with reporters.

Miller also had choice words for Bangladesh officials, saying the government "has dragged its feet" for years on tougher safety laws, putting workers at risk for the sake of attracting western companies.

The California Democrat is urging the adoption of tougher work-safety laws by the government and an enforceable worker safety pact by foreign retailers who do business in the country. He called it "a defining moment" for both the government and U.S. retailers.

"It's very clear," he said, "you have to decide now whether you want to have blood on your labels."

The April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building in a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, killed more than 1,100 people – mostly low-paid garment workers – and injured another 2,500.

The disaster has led some of the world's largest retailers – mostly European companies – to agree to join an international pact adopting tougher, enforceable safety guidelines for Bangladesh factories. But a number of American companies – most notably Walmart and Gap – have refused to sign on. Instead, the two retail giants announced this week that they'll spearhead their own safety program, which will be managed by former Sens. George Mitchell (D-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Miller on Friday cast doubts that the separate programs will be as effective as the adoption of a single set of standards.

"We'll see what they come up with," Miller said, "but it's unfortunate that we can't have a unified effort."

Miller also downplayed the role of Western consumers in the debate, arguing that it's often difficult for shoppers "to decipher" where the clothes on the rack originated. He placed the responsibility on the brands that contract overseas and the retailers that peddle those brands.

The Rana Plaza tragedy is just the latest in a string of deadly industrial accidents plaguing Bangladesh, which is the world's second-leading garment exporter behind China. Between 2005 and 2010, three major building collapses in and around Dhaka killed a total of 116 people – mostly workers – and at least 112 workers died last November in a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory outside the Bangladeshi capital.

The disasters have renewed the question of whether global companies share any of the blame for industrial disasters that result from poor working conditions in the factories that produce their products.

Miller's answer is a categorical "yes."

"If Walmart and the Gap want to stand beside collapsing buildings … and burning buildings, I guess that's their choice," Miller said. "But I don't think they should be allowed to do business in Bangladesh or anywhere else."