A year after a factory fire in Bangladesh killed more than 100 people, and seven months after about 1,100 workers perished in the collapse of another commercial building, there are finally signs of progress toward ending the abominable abuses of that country's garment workers, who have long been subjected to rock-bottom wages and grossly unsafe working conditions.
In the case of the Rana Plaza building, textile employees were told to go to work in April even after the structure had been declared vulnerable to collapse. In the Tazreen Fashion fire, workers were allegedly prevented from leaving the building during the early stages of the fire. The two factories made clothes for Wal-Mart, Sears, Disney and several other well-known firms.
At last, however, internal protests and international pressure are producing results. Last weekend, a Bangladeshi court ordered the government to pay better compensation to families of the victims after its failure to adequately enforce its own safety laws. There are reports that the owner of the Tazreen building will face criminal charges. On Sunday, a new minimum wage is scheduled to raise employee pay by 77%.
Meanwhile, U.S. and European retailers and clothing labels have agreed on a set of common safety and inspection standards for about 2,000 factories in Bangladesh that make clothes for such well-known companies as Wal-Mart, the Gap and H&M. Garment exports are a $20-billion-a-year industry in Bangladesh, and these standards are vital to ensure that factories that fail one company's inspections don't simply contract with less conscientious firms.