Consumer choice: The Bangladesh tragedy tugs at the conscience

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The collapse of a nine-story building near Dhaka, Bangladesh, which contained five clothing factories, killed at least 400 garment workers and has focused American consumers' attention on a painful, difficult problem.

The fundamental wrongs that led to the collapse of the building and the nation's worst garment industry disaster were of Bangladeshi making. The structure was not built to code. Working conditions in it were miserable -- crowded and hot, with no safe evacuation procedures. Wages for the largely female workers were as low as $38 a month.

The tragedy carried echoes of New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which killed 146 and led to reforms.

In Bangladesh, many of the factories produce clothing for well-known U.S. and international firms, including Benetton, Disney, Gap and JCPenney. What the Western retailers like about the Bangladeshi products is their low cost of production, enhancing the companies' profits and offering consumers attractive clothes at competitive prices.

So what now? The Bangladeshis fear an overseas boycott resulting from the tragedy. In that case, U.S. merchandisers might simply turn to low-cost factories in other countries, such as Cambodia, Haiti or Myanmar. That would threaten unemployment, or worse, to the poor women trying to make a living from the Bangladesh factories.

We believe that most Americans would like to see these employees working in safe conditions and being paid better, even if it means that our clothes will cost a little more. Toward that end, it is correct for not only the U.S. government but also U.S. and other firms to put pressure on Bangladeshi and other poor-country producers to head off these labor-related, potential tragedies. To their credit, some U.S. companies already have begun to speak out.

The Bangladesh workers have protested their workplace conditions, but their economic circumstances are such that they have little leverage and practically no choice. The proof is they already have gone back to work.



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