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Basu: Americans must demand garment-worker safety around the world

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) Photo Credit: AP

"Wal-Mart. Save money. Live better," says the website of the world's largest retailer. But at least 112 victims of a recent fire in a Bangladesh garment factory paid with their lives for producing clothes for Wal-Mart and several other U.S. companies.

As thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers protested, Wal-Mart -- whose Faded Glory clothes were found inside the factory -- insists its hands are clean. It claims it cut ties to the factory after a safety audit last year showed it to be at "high risk." It said that one of its suppliers subcontracted there without authorization, and that it has now cut ties to that supplier, too.

But that claim is contradicted by a letter, purportedly from Wal-Mart, posted on the factory owner's website. Written after last May's audit, it merely threatens to suspend orders in the event of two more high-risk findings within two years. Wal-Mart hasn't commented on its authenticity.

There was no emergency exit in the factory, and the doors were reportedly locked to prevent workers from leaving or stealing. Some hurled themselves out of windows.

In 1911, 146 garment workers died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York, where doors had also been locked to prevent employees from leaving or stealing, and some also jumped out of windows to escape. Workers there had been trying to organize a union but the company had refused to recognize it. It followed eight previous fires over nine years.

In Bangladesh, more than 500 people reportedly have been killed in garment factory fires in the last six or seven years. In 2001, Bangladesh's high court directed the government to create a committee to oversee the safety of garment workers but that was never implemented.

There is a haunting continuum from the New York fire to the Bangladesh one. As U.S. garment workers have demanded proper wages and working conditions, companies have turned to poor countries like Bangladesh, where entry-level workers earn as little as $37 a month. By subcontracting, companies are able to distance themselves from violations of workers' safety and rights.

But workers' groups in Bangladesh are asking companies that contract with suppliers there to enter binding agreements requiring independent factory inspections. It's so little to ask. If foreign governments won't protect their people, U.S. companies doing business there still can and should.

A petition on the website -- started by a Bangladeshi who says she was permanently injured as a child laborer in a 2006 factory fire -- calls on Wal-Mart and other companies to "Fix Death-Trap Factories." She says that the factory in which she worked lacked any safety equipment or fire drills, and that "six years later, working conditions in Bangladesh have hardly changed." The Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop advocacy group in Holland, said in a statement, "These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps." In a prepared statement, Wal-Mart said it has been "working across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh." Yet the owner of the burned factory said he didn't know he was even required to have a fire escape.

More than 3 million Bangladeshis, mostly women, work in the garment industry. Even if they're not legally culpable, U.S. companies have an ethical responsibility to those who subsidize their cheap goods. Wal-Mart buys $1 billion worth of the $20 billion in garments Bangladesh exports every year.

In the movie "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," we learned that the company pays its U.S. employees so little that many are eligible for taxpayer-subsidized health care. Ironically, just a day before the recent fire, Wal-Mart workers across America were out protesting their low wages and lack of benefits.

While there's nothing to prevent companies from going overseas for cheap labor, their presence should elevate life abroad, not debase it. When Apple is linked to a Chinese factory where multiple suicides are attributed to working conditions, and Wal-Mart, Sears and Disney are linked to a fatal fire eerily like one 101 years ago in America, it suggests a race to the bottom.

It is not only possible to realize savings while ensuring that workers are taken care of, it's a minimal obligation -- and American consumers should demand no less.

Basu is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.