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Measures Of Change After Bangladesh Garment Factory Collapse


One year ago, the clothing manufacturing industry suffered its deadliest accident in history. An eight-story building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. Many were garment workers making cheap clothes for U.S. and European manufacturers. At the time, those corporations came under intense pressure for lax safety standards. To find out if and how the industry has responded, I'm joined by Steven Greenhouse. He's a labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times. Thanks so much for being with us.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Good to be here, Rachel.

MARTIN: First, Steven, can you just remind us how this tragedy happened? The factory owners knew there was an imminent risk to that building, right?

GREENHOUSE: Workers saw that columns - that pillars were cracking. And some left their factories that afternoon because they were scared of an imminent disaster. And the next morning, managers at several of the factories inside the building told the workers we need you to go in. We need you to go in. If you don't go in, we're not going to pay you for a month. We might fire you. And the workers felt so much pressure and so much fear that they went in.

And that morning after the generators started rumbling, this eight-story building collapsed, you know. In the United States, we talk about the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, where 146 workers died. Well, seven times as many workers died in this disaster.

MARTIN: There was a lot of outcry from labor advocates and consumer groups after this disaster, calling on manufacturers to hold factories to higher safety standards. Are they doing that today?

GREENHOUSE: Yes, Rachel. They really have stepped up their game. They are doing much more rigorous inspections. Now, I was speaking to one of the chief Western inspectors in Bangladesh the other day. And he said two years and four years and five years ago, you know, many, many monitoring companies gave green lights to thousands of factories, even though they didn't have sprinkler systems, they didn't have fire escapes, they didn't have smoke-proof stairways, they didn't have proper fire doors.

And it was kind of a disaster waiting to happen. Now, finally after Rana Plaza, I think the Western companies have finally stepped-up. They've hired several hundred engineers to go in. They hope to have 2,000 factories inspected by the end of this year. And they've pledged to really help the Bangladeshi factory owners make improvements to install fire doors, to put in sprinkler systems. You know, there are some criticisms yet, Rachel, that, you know, some of the inspections are not rigorous enough.

There are worries that some of the Western companies won't step-up and provide the financial wherewithal to assure that some of these Bangladeshi factory owners will take the steps needed.

MARTIN: Overall, as a result of the tragedy that happened at Rana Plaza, are workers in manufacturing factories like that one in Bangladesh - are they safer today than they were a year ago?

GREENHOUSE: That's a good question. I generally say in Bangladesh by-and-large they're safer. Does that mean that there won't be a fire tomorrow or three weeks from now? That's possible. But, you know, I've interviewed the inspectors from the European-led group and the American-led group and they, you know, they found a lot of major problems.

They're just starting to do remediation. You know, the remediation is going to take a year or two. The big fear amongst the people I speak to is now finally there's this good program in Bangladesh that's raising standards, but what about Cambodia and what about Vietnam and what about China and what about Burma? That, you know, will we see some of these problems in other countries because they do not have as rigorous inspections as Bangladesh now has.

MARTIN: Steven Greenhouse is a business reporter for the New York Times. Thanks so much for talking with us.

GREENHOUSE: Good to talk, Rachel. Thank you.

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.