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Editorial: U.S. companies should push for safety

Bangladeshi firefighters battle a fire at a garment

Bangladeshi firefighters battle a fire at a garment factory in the Savar neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Nov. 24, 2012) Credit: AP

Six months ago, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh told that country's leading garment exporters he was worried about a "perfect storm" that could threaten the Bangladesh brand in America, the International Herald Tribune reports.

He was troubled about a failure to protect workers' rights, the paper said, and he explicitly warned his local audience of the high price they might wind up paying for yet another factory fire: U.S. chief executives had started to worry about putting their corporate reputations at risk.

On Saturday, it happened.

When a fire alarm went off at Tazreen Fashions, the managers told workers it was simply a malfunction, survivors said. An exit door was locked. Fire extinguishers didn't work.

The death toll yesterday was 112. Victims were either trapped inside the burning building or jumped to their deaths in desperation.

To many New Yorkers, this totally avoidable horror is a painful reminder of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 people -- all but 23 of them young women -- at a factory in Manhattan.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire led to landmark laws to protect workers' rights and make sure buildings are safe.

In the best of all worlds, the shocking loss of life in Bangladesh last weekend would have a similar result.

American companies that buy clothes from Bangladesh factories can help make this happen -- by refusing to do business with shops that cut costs by scrimping on safety.

It's one thing for a company like Apple Inc. to outsource work to the factories of Foxconn Electronics Inc., where workers are highly regimented for productivity. It's quite another thing to trade with companies that routinely risk workers' lives.

How can companies tell who they're dealing with? Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has a rating system that's worth a look. It has six color-coded safety levels and it gave Tanzeen a rating of orange, or high-risk, in May 2011.

Why should American companies act as factory cops? They need to protect the good name of their brands. In places like Bangladesh, then, the forces of the free market may wind up protecting employees, too.