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It's Time to Step Up and Help the Workers of Bangladesh

A planned demonstration at Gap Inc's shareholder meeting in San Francisco aims to get Gap to sign on to fire and building safety regulations in Bangladesh.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in April, the world’s worst garment industry catastrophe which killed over 1,000 people, has sparked intensive debate over who is to blame for the devastation.

Many have pointed the finger at global corporations’ failure to provide adequate fire and building safeguards for factory workers. Such controversy has resulted in pressure upon the major retailers to sign a legally binding agreement aimed to improve conditions in the country, which to date has the support of 19 corporations.

However, only one company, PVH -- which owns brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Van Heusen -- is American. The Gap and Walmart, two of the major producers in Bangladesh, continue to resist signing any agreement that is legally binding or enforceable. Instead, Walmart has said it will conduct its own investigations into its supplier factories.

The question that remains is what can we as consumers do to ensure that a tragedy of this magnitude does not happen again? Merely sitting back as bystanders and depending on the corporate moguls to solve a problem which has been proliferating over decades is not the answer.  

As shoppers, we have an ability and opportunity to honor our values to promote the rights of workers and advocate for change in an effort to ensure that these types of disasters do not occur again. We can do this by joining and supporting a demonstration on May 21 in San Francisco at the Gap shareholder meeting to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. 

Take Action, Be Vocal

According to Liana Foxvog of International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), the most important thing that consumers can do is to get involved and provide a voice. “There are not many sources where workers rights are respected in the global garment industry so we are urging consumers to be more than just consumers and raise their voices,” she said.

Foxvog told AlterNet that it is vitally important that consumers pay attention to how companies are treating workers in Bangladesh and that global companies know that consumers will not accept unsafe practice or the repression of worker’s rights to unionize.  

“Taking action is the most important step for consumers and this can be done either in the form of attending protests, writing letters to store managers and foreign companies and signing petitions,” she said.

A number of petitions calling for better working conditions in Bangladesh have been circulating since the April tragedy. The Gap “ death traps” is an example of a petition instigated by ILRF which has been gaining momentum across the US and calling on consumers to take action across the country.

Foxvog argues that it’s time for companies to make a change from the past to work together on programs in agreement with global and Bangladeshi unions in order to protect workers lives and ensure safety mechanisms are in place.

Selective Shopping

As consumers, we have the power to control where and how we spend our money. There are a number of consumer shopping guides that are available in order to search for union-made clothing shops.  

While an outright boycott of the industry seems like an obvious and highly desirable option, unions and activists have expressed reluctance at taking such extreme measures.    

As Muhammud Yanus, Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner explains, such actions would drastically affect the social and economic future of the Bangladeshi workers.

“We cannot allow this industry to be destroyed. Rather, we have to be united as a nation to strengthen it,” Yanus said.

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