It’s been three years since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 people, yet retailers like H&M, Walmart and Gap have failed to improve working and safety conditions for their workers.
Like many of the other global retail giants, these companies make much of their clothing in low-wage Asian countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and India. Yet, workers are not happy with the employment opportunities they provide and for good reason.
They still regularly face “intensive labor exploitation,” sexual harassment, dangerous work environments and non-payment of wages, according to a report released by a coalition of advocacy groups and trade unions, Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA).
AFWA released a series of reports on Tuesday that draws on hundreds of interviews from personnel of over 70 garment industry organizations.
In Bangladesh, thousands of workers sew garments in buildings without fire exits. In India and Indonesia, pregnant women experience workplace harassment, lower wages and discrimination. Some workers in India also have to work on national holidays and Sundays in the blistering heat. In Cambodia, workers have been fatally shot over a simple request for an additional $20. And in all four countries, workers are forced to work excessive hours without overtime payment on threat of losing their jobs.
At the same time, Walmart has continued to exploit laborers for its own paltry benefits. Workers in scores of supplier factories in Asia work under “harsh conditions with strict line leaders, tough supervisors and abusive management practices,” even going as far as denying their workers water and bathroom breaks.
And due to the lack of regulations in the supply chain, Walmart has easily been able to avoid any attempts at accountability for its unethical practices.
The brands claim they have actively pushed measures for stronger labor protection and work condition monitoring. They also say they have made significant fire repairs to their factories in Bangladesh. Yet advocacy groups complain working conditions are improving at a snail’s pace and the corporations continue to abuse their laborers.
“There have been substantial safety renovations in factories that have unquestionably made those factories substantially safer,” Scott Nova, the executive director of the labor monitoring group Worker Rights Consortium, said of the work in Bangladesh. “At the same time, it’s also true that there have been unacceptable delays.”
“At this point, we do not see H&M working in a way that would prevent another Rana Plaza,” said Anannya Bhattacharjee, the international coordinator for the Wage Alliance.
Factories in many developing countries are under constant pressure to produce billions of dollars worth of good at a cost low enough to beat competition from foreign businesses.
H&M, which had $25 billion in revenue last year, benefits immeasurably from the fast-changing fashion trends, relying on Asian factories to quickly refresh its designer wear. Meanwhile, Walmart has made it its business to churn out inexpensive goods at the cost of human rights.