What’s the Deal With Better Labor Conditions for Garment Workers?

Hello All!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that proudly does not outsource its writing.

what is the real price tag?

what is the real price tag?

In this week’s post we’ll take a look at an agreement by major U.S. clothing retailers that puts forth a plan in response to disasters at Bangladeshi clothing factories earlier this year.

We’ll examine what this plan does, what other plans are out there, and what the history of labor conditions in the U.S. could mean for the fate of worker safety and building compliance in low cost manufacturing countries like Bangladesh.

The Current: Plan to hold steady

On June 27th, the U.S. government suspended special trade preferences for imports from Bangladesh. The Obama administration’s decision, which stops the duty-free (tariff free) exports to the U.S., is largely symbolic as it does not apply to Bangladesh’s huge and embattled garment industry and only affects 1% of the nearly $5 Billion in imports from Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshi government, however, reacted harshly to the administration’s decision, worrying that this might influence the E.U. to suspend their trade preferences as well and also displace their standing in the global economy. The E.U. has a much larger stake in the garment industry with 60% of Bangladesh’s clothing exports going to Europe.

structurally unsound

structurally unsound

The U.S. decided to do this in response to the Bangladeshi government’s foot dragging in implementing international safety standards for laborers. Numerous events over the last decade have shown that buildings that garment industry workers produce clothing in are unsafe and/or not up to standard.

This was punctuated by the huge fire at the Tazreen factory in November 2012 that killed 112 people and even more so by the Rana Plaza building collapse in April of this year that killed 1,129 people.

In addition to the pressure put on diplomatically by the U.S. government, large retailers whose products were being manufactured at those two facilities, came together in early July with a cross-industry plan to work with the Bangladeshi government in improving worker conditions and facility standards. European and other international companies also came up with a plan with similar goals.

With the immense international pressure, Bangladesh finally amended a labor law this week which is intended to strengthen worker’s protections to international standards.


Was the pressure put on by international governments, rights groups, and industry leaders enough for the condition of Bangladeshi laborers to improve? The answer is, unfortunately, not yet. 

change requires more than engagement

change requires more than engagement

Since the U.S. suspension on trade benefits did not apply to the garment industry (because of the large business it produces for American companies), the reaction from the Bangladeshi government was not as sweeping as many would have liked – in fact, labor groups are upset that the amendments continue to discourage unionization or repress union membership.

The most worrying is the plan set forth by American companies, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, with much debate over whether this plan will ameliorate labor conditions or not. Supporters of the plan say that companies have collaborated together and will work with the Bangladesh government to make sure another disaster won’t happen again. Labor rights groups argue that the document is largely toothless because it doesn’t obligate companies by law to cover costs of factory renovation; and without the money, safe factories won’t exist.

At one point in the U.S. labor conditions were just as horrendous as they are now in Bangladesh. Let’s take a look at what it took to change conditions for workers in this country and what it might take to change them for countries like Bangladesh.

What it takes to change the law: 

Though we like to think of the United States as a country where national laws protect its workers and offer everyone a living wage, a great deal of this country and its economy was built off of workers in unsafe conditions with little protection and indecent wages – and sometimes none.

no overtime

no overtime granted

While we take many of our labor laws like the 40 hour work week, worker safety standards, and minimum age laws for granted now, it took decades of labor and reform movements, muckraking journalists, and political wrangling to bring the reality of the American worker to the eyes of public officials and to make changes possible.

For this segment, we’ll exclude slave labor ( A huge exclustion) – just because we are connecting historical wage labor in the U.S. with modern wage labor in Bangladesh

Why did workers, both adults and children, work endless hours 6-7 days a week in unsafe conditions with very little pay? Because it was good business, that’s why – and, it was legal. Mining companies and various industries didn’t hesitate to hire children in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries – children posed less of a threat to unionize or retaliate, children could crawl in to tight spaces, fix bobbin machines with smaller fingers, and could be paid less – what a great deal for the company!

a fairly modern poster

the best time to use the RACE card

Keeping buildings sound requires a lot of money and there were no building safety codes for many factories – so there were no requirements for building maintenance. Renovations and fire drills might keep workers safe, but they also result in the stoppage of work and loss of potential revenue – plus with no legal requirements to do renovations or provide for a plan in the event of a fire, workers could be kept at their machines without interruption! (until a disaster does occur).

Precursor to the U.S. Federal Labor Laws

Early labor movements calling for reform in the 18th and early 19th century were small and generally less restive until the 1860s and 1870s when large unions such as the Knights of Labor (and later the AFL) were formed and put great pressure on state legislatures. The first results were at the state level in the North with the first factory inspection act in the 1870s and 1880s after inspections by the MA state dept of labor revealed:

“There is a peril to life and limb from unguarded machinery, and peril to health from lack of ventilation, and insufficiency of means of escape in case of fire, in many establishments…. These evils can only be prevented by detailed enactment.”

Indeed, it often took spectacular disasters to occur before any change was made to protect the workplace, such as in Missouri after 23 miners died in an accident in 1887. State level legislation was initially modeled after England’s 1802 factory inspection legislation that, while not enforced well there, served as a model for the American laws. These laws, depending on the state, at first focused on protecting women and children by reducing hours and limiting exposure to dangerous machinery. Later amendments to state labor laws were more inclusive with safety standards such as guarding dangerous machine parts, requiring reports of all serious accidents to the state, ordering additional fire safety precautions, and forbidding children under 16 from working jobs that were hazardous to their health.

they didn't want to be part of the daily grind

they didn’t want to be part of the daily grind

While these initial state laws were an improvement, often they did not cover a lot of dangers that workers faced, such as airborne dust from grinders, chemicals, proper ventilation, fire escape routes, or the laws didn’t apply to smaller businesses.

With several different types of state laws, workers faced different conditions and safety standards from state to state. Further, employers in different states in the same industry might gain a competitive edge just because of the state they lived in and what standards they required.

The factory inspection laws proved cumbersome to administer and enforce so factory safety standards were written and attempted by many companies to help improve the conditions of workers and to prevent accidents. Companies came to realize after publications like Carol Eastman’s Work Accidents and the Law in 1910, that industrial accidents were extremely bad for business. Accidents were prominently profiled in publications like Eastman’s in the first decade of the 1900s and caused a stir in the public for action to be taken, much like Upton Sinclair did for the meat packing industry. Stories like this horrifying one in Pennsylvania left quite an impression:

“He was dragged into the machinery and his head severed… A second later both legs were cut off. Then one arm after the other fell into the lesser wheels below, both being cut into many parts. Before the machinery could be stopped, Stoffel had been literally chopped to pieces.”

Prior to these accidents and their publicity, surviving workers often received little compensation from lawsuits and companies paid little beyond initial hospital bills.

deadly fashionable

deadly fashionable

Perhaps most famously and most relatable to the fire in Bangladesh, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in NYC showed the worst of mis-management, callous consideration for worker safety by ownership, and gruesome events that killed 146 people.

The shirtwaist factory owners had refused to comply with the better working conditions and wages garnered by International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union for NYC workers in 1909. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris refused to recognize unions – firing 150 suspected union sympathizers or to update any safety standards. The shirtwaist factory produced popular tailored blouses that made big profits for Blanck and Harris but at the expense of the Triangle factory workers who labored in what can be described as a “true sweatshop.”

Blanck and   continued their pattern of disregard for human life at their next factory

Blanck and Harris continued their pattern of disregard for human life at their next factory

The owners negligence and disregard for safety was easily seen such as: only having 2 staircases (when at least 3 were required), having doors that opened inward, a weak fire escape that only went to the 2nd floor, blocked exits, and most chillingly, a policy of locking the women workers on the factory floor to prevent workers from taking breaks. All these factors lead to a disastrous fire becoming a needless human tragedy with women jumping to their death and at least 100 others dying inside the building. According to one report, “water pumped into the building by the firemen ran red in the gutter.”

The Triangle Factory Fire provoked great outrage from the public and eventually prompted the formation of Factory Investigation Committee in New York which fostered the creation of much more stringent worker safety and fire safety laws for the garment and many other industries.

“A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work”

The road to the higher standard state labor laws and later the federal labor laws with which are still the standard for the modern workforce was paved by fierce lobbying by unions and reform groups, increased public objection to worker conditions promoted by muckraking journalists, and spectacular industrial accidents.

Roosevelt and Perkins: instrumental in bringing a federal law to protect workers

Roosevelt and Perkins: instrumental in bringing a federal law to protect workers

The Federal Labor Standards Act of 1938 was an all encompassing piece of legislation that combined ideas from state labor laws and applied it at the national level during the depression. The law required a minimum wage (25 cents/hour), a 40 hour max work week, and a minimum working age of 16 (excluding mining and certain industries).

The bill owes most of its existence to the persistence and political skill of President Roosevelt and his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins (the first woman appointed to the executive cabinet). Passage of the law was by no means certain, as there were fierce opponents of the sweeping legislation from business leaders and ideological opponents who fretted over cost and government overreach. But eventually, the bill became law in 1938 and along with the National Labor Relations Act, there was finally a national standard for worker’s rights and protection, or as Roosevelt called it, ” A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

As landmark as the law was however, the need for evolving legislation to protect workers’ rights showed itself in worker discrimination cases, as new industries in plastics and chemicals were developed, and as the administration of enforcing labor laws required a more cohesive and organized department. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed racial discrimination, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), passed in 1970 sought to address both continuing worker safety standards and the oversight of compliance.

Like all laws, they are imperfect at solving every issue at hand, but are generally hailed as the major backbone of worker protection. The labor standards legislation, though well crafted, is only as good as the enforcement it provides for and requires compliance by employers and workers for the law to function. The standards of workers in the U.S. may not be perfect, and many things remain unsolved or fought over (such as equal pay for women) but the system does allow for changes to be made (if sometimes painfully slowly).

Conclusion: Will Standards Change in Bangladesh?

We’ve seen what it took for labor standards to change in the United States:

  • Spectacular Disasters
  • Public outrage at working conditions
  • pressure on policy makers from unions
  • State level legislation and employer compliance
  • Federal Legislation that is enforced 

Will the same pattern occur in Bangladesh after their own spectacular disasters in the past year?

Know where your clothing comes from

Know where your clothing comes from

Though the public outrage is high and international standards have long been developed, the progress to safe conditions in Bangladesh will not be short. It will require a combination of efforts from the Bangladeshi government, international pressure, factory owners and employers, and the large global retailers whose products are made at these factories.

The international pressure by the U.S. was largely symbolic since the revocation of trade preferences did not affect the garment industry. If the EU were to do the same thing, however, it would send a very strong signal to the Bangladeshi government to create a more comprehensive worker safety and protection law. In addition, workers should have the right to organize and collectively bargain with employers; they should not be discriminated against or threatened if they unionize. Further, factory owners who allowed their workers to die needlessly by locking them on the factory floor (just like what happened at the Triangle fire disaster) or by not providing proper fire evacuation plans should be prosecuted for their negligence and awful misdeeds.

Finally, to the plans set forth by American and European retailers. If these plans are to actually work to improve worker safety in Bangladesh, they should hold both factory owners responsible to get their buildings up to standards as the plans say they will, but also should hold themselves responsible with both voluntary and legally binding obligations.

Improving standards in Bangladesh garment factories has been talked about for years by retailers and governments but won’t actually improve unless those in a position of power feel they need to. This means strict laws with compliance and enforcement, and strong action by retailers. For businesses to profit as they do from such low cost labor, making sure their workers are safe is the least they should do, and it is their moral and legal obligation.

Until the next disaster spurs action,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:













About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in Asia, Disasters, Economy, International Affairs, Social Issues, U.S. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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