Michael Guerriero: Ten Cents

It’s often reported that the recession turned Americans into frugal shoppers. Well, here’s a bargain: spending about ten cents more on a piece of clothing produced in Bangladesh could prevent disasters like the horrific collapse, last month, of the Rana Plaza factory, which killed over a thousand people, the deadliest accident in history of the garment industry.The ten-cent figure was derived by the Worker Rights Consortium, a group that investigates working conditions in factories around the world, and first gained currency late last year, after a November fire at a different factory in Bangladesh killed over a hundred people (Eight more died in yet another fire last week.) Their analysis is based on the estimated three billion dollars, spread out over five years, that would be required to bring Bangladesh’s forty-five hundred factories in line with Western safety standards.Hopefully, the math won’t remain hypothetical. On April 24th, the day of the collapse at Rana Plaza, the Worker Rights Consortium employed the economics of shame, and started naming names among the retailers that produced garments in the collapsed factory (Walmart, Benetton, and Dress Barn, among others). Then a coalition of unions, N.G.O.s, and, Sarah Stillman writes, former factory workers proposed a binding accord on fire and building safety, and set yesterday as the deadline for businesses to agree to its terms. As of this morning, the agreement covers thirty-four retailers supplied by over a thousand factories in Bangladesh.There are some notable holdouts to the Bangladesh agreement. Walmart, preferring to follow its own safety initiatives, did not sign. Neither did Gap, despite announcing it was “six sentences” away from agreeing to the accord yesterday afternoon.

Still, there is reason to believe that changes enacted by the companies that did sign the agreement will save lives. In this week’s magazine, James Surowiecki writes that in Cambodia, a program administered by the International Labour Organization, in collaboration with the government, significantly improved working conditions, along with worker rights, while exports continued to grow.

But, Surowiecki warns, “As long as consumers and companies insist on the lowest price and endless variety, there’ll always be factories that are willing to cut corners to get the business.” The question that remains is whether an extra ten cents on a shirt or a pair of socks, measured against the potential value of hundreds of human lives, will prove to be a corner worth cutting.

Illustration by Larry Buchanan.

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