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What Bangladesh – and US retailers – must do to prevent man-made tragedies

Two man-made tragedies have shaken Bangladesh recently: riots over Islamist demands for blasphemy laws and the garment factory collapse. Bangladesh's response to both will show how well it can meet citizens' needs. US retailers must also take responsibility for factory conditions.

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In Bangladesh, the government should be doing more to protect its people from preventable risks like politically motivated riots and unsafe work places. It has proposed legislation improving working conditions, but there is little reason to believe that new laws will succeed where existing laws have failed. A more promising approach to addressing unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh’s factories comes from the retailers themselves.

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Western press accounts have reported that many brands of T-shirts and blue jeans popular with American and European consumers are made in Bangladeshi factories no more safe than the Rana facility. Since the Bangladesh factory collapse, more than a dozen European companies, including large retailers like Benetton and H&M, have formed an international accord that requires manufacturers to institute a strict code of conduct for the contractors in their supply chain. They have also agreed to abide by a comprehensive set of factory reforms.

So far only two US clothing retailers have joined them – Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH Corp, which owns Calvin Klein. Most other major US retailers (including the Gap, Target, and J.C. Penney) have said they would not sign the accord, citing fears that the agreement would put them in a position of excessive legal liability where they might be sued by international labor groups in US courts. But Wal-Mart has announced its own set of inspection procedures, and Walt Disney Company has decided to pull out of Bangladesh entirely.

And the National Retail Federation – the largest such association for US firms – has said it would prefer to create an alternative agreement to what NRF president Matthew Shay calls the “one-size-fits-all approach” of the current accord.

Though most major American firms have declined to sign the agreement, they should. If European companies can make a healthy profit without relying on unsafe factory conditions, American firms can, too.

The recent bloodshed and loss of life are fresh minders of this critical public responsibility.

Jonah Blank is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and former policy director for South and Southeast Asia on the staff of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


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