American retailers need better answers about garment workers’ deadly fire


Wal-Mart, Disney, Sears, Sean Coombs’ ENYCE and other brands have a lot of answering to do after a fire in a Bangladesh sweatshop last weekend killed 112 garment workers who were paid about 23 cents an hour — $38 a month — to produce goods for the American giants.

My former colleague, the editor extraordinaire of the Albany Business Review, Mike Hendricks, posted a strong Washington Post take on Wal-Mart’s system.

This is a crisis and so far the companies’ explanations and defense of the horrid conditions under which these workers produced their goods are wholly lacking. Basically the explanations are: ‘we cut off those factories a couple of months ago and no longer work with them.’

Never the most loquacious, Wal-Mart issued the following statement Monday:

“Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier. The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”

Right. And when you did contract with the owners of the factory, through a middleman or three, were they clean, safe, OSHA-approved and paying $10.50 an hour? The conditions a few months ago were surely the same; the only difference was a spark.

This is what we call a self-induced crisis. It’s totally unnecessary.

In 1911, unscrupulous owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan locked the exit doors on garment workers doing piece work in sweatshop conditions. Most were young women, recent Jewish and Italian immigrants, who died in the flames, from smoke inhalation or by jumping from the 10-story building’s top floors.

The landmark tragedy led an outraged Congress to pass protective legislation and to creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The women worked nine hours a day, seven on Saturdays, and earned about $1.50 a day. Sound familiar?

Let’s put that in context, in terms of how far Americans supposedly have come in 100 years. That year the NAACP was founded; the first photograph was taken from an airplane; Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500, averaging 74.5 mph; Roald Amundsen’s expedition reached the South Pole; and Gustav Mahler conducted his last concerto.

This was a long time ago, and we should have come a long way baby, but some corporations have not.

One hundred years later, people who put profit ahead of safety contract with American corporations whose leaders would be shocked, shocked I tell you, if they “knew” of these arrangements and conditions.

The party line has always been that retailing is a competitive business and low price for quality goods wins. There might even be a corporate slogan in there somewhere.

There’s actually some merit therein, but if $1 or $5 a day were added to the Bangladeshi workers’ pay, would Wal-Mart, Disney and the others not spread that cost over the millions of garments they sell, with the consumer never the wiser? Of course. This is about maximizing corporate profits while keeping overhead as low as possible.

And there’s nothing wrong with profits and returning them to shareholders. But this crisis can only be stemmed when these companies force change, pay fair wages in context with the host country, and market to the consumer that their shorts and shirts may cost a bit more, but it’s the right thing to do.

Companies with the clout of these should have no problem conveying that message. And we, as consumers, should have no problem paying a little more to support it.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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