The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City more than 100 years ago probably is the worst single workplace tragedy in U.S. history. Workplace safety and health reforms followed the fire and eventually led to the signing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the creation of OSHA and MSHA. Unions gained strength and demanded safer working conditions for members. And now, modern building codes demand certain standards of construction, as well as sprinkler systems, warning systems, appropriate storage of flammable goods, an appropriate number of exits and the ability to access those exits.

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But as U.S. corporations shifted the bulk of their manufacturing overseas, how responsible should they have been for contractors that set up shop in countries where production is the only concern? Should U.S. and European companies bear some responsibility for the welfare of their contractors’ employees?

The authors of the articles in this special section say that yes, the multinational companies doing business in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan have a moral responsibility to improve the working conditions and safety of the people who manufacture their clothing and other products. After all, manufacturing in Bangladesh is big business: The ready-made garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh exported goods worth more than $20 billion in the past year; nearly 12 percent more than a year earlier.

The companies themselves – Gap, Walmart, Disney and others – say they are taking steps to improve working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere. 

Gap Inc.

In September, Gap Inc. released its sixth Social and Environmental Responsibility Report, highlighting what the company says is its “commitment to local communities and efforts to improve social and environmental performance globally.”

The report, which covers fiscal years 2011-2012, details sustainability initiatives companywide and globally, as well as across the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime and Athleta brands. 

“Our commitment to social and environmental responsibility remains a cornerstone of how we conduct and grow our business,” said Glenn Murphy, chairman and chief executive officer of Gap Inc. “While as a company we will never stop striving for improvement, our legacy of leadership in this work is extremely meaningful to me and to our employees.”

The company noted, “Recent tragedies in Bangladesh have underscored the imperative to improve working and safety conditions for garment workers. Although Gap Inc. did not have a business relationship with factories in Rana Plaza or with Tazreen, the company remains committed to supporting systemic and sustainable reform of the country’s rapidly growing garment industry.”

In October 2012, Gap launched a Building and Fire Safety Plan for the more than 70 Bangladeshi facilities approved to manufacture Gap Inc. apparel and in July 2013, Gap Inc. became a founding member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. A cornerstone of the alliance is a shared responsibility between the Bangladeshi government, retailers and apparel companies, factory owners, non-governmental organizations, labor and civil society. Member companies commit to inspecting 100 percent of their approved sourcing factories within the first year, under a uniform fire and building safety code.

Walmart

Walmart has issued Standards for Suppliers, which set forth its fundamental expectations of suppliers and their factories on the treatment of workers and impact on the environment. The standards also provide the framework for audits that measure how well suppliers are meeting those expectations. 

“We also recognize the need for heightened attention to the unique safety problem in Bangladesh,” says Walmart on its web site. “We expect firm commitments from our suppliers to meet strict safety standards, to be open to rigorous audits and to put the welfare of employees first.”

In addition to the regular audits that Walmart conducts under its ethical sourcing program, the company recently announced that it will conduct more in-depth inspections in Bangladesh relating to electrical, fire and building safety. These facility audits are conducted by “accredited and internationally recognized auditing firms and are based upon the obligation in its standards to provide workers with a safe and healthy work environment.”

When independent audits have found serious or repeated violations of Walmart standards related to safety issues, social issues, unauthorized subcontracting or other requirements, the company red flags them. 

Saying that, “Transparency helps all stakeholders to improve worker standards,” the company publishes a list of factories in Bangladesh that are not permitted to produce product for Walmart.