Who Makes Your T-Shirt?

Terry H. Schwadron

August 31, 2021

It was a smallish news item, given chaos in Afghanistan, hurricanes and wildfires and the pandemic, but given the importance of the retail clothing industry and our feelings for clothes, one that caught our eye.

The question it raises is how much we believe in worker safety, something that we see playing out in re-openings under widening covid cases and various economic pressures.

A new agreement was unveiled, taking effect this week, aiming to protecting workers in Bangladesh who represent the most at-risk garment workers, committing almost 200 international brands to legally binding safety inspections and factory improvements.

Bangladesh remains among the world’s largest garment exporter after China and now Vietnam, according to World Trade Organization. Bangladesh is where a factory collapse killed nearly 1,100 garment workers in 2013.

It affects your local retail chain, of course, and the T-shirt you buy.

The new agreement — the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, replaces a previous, but less legally stringent accord for fire and building safety enacted by most companies selling clothing.

Still, that pact is said to have improved working conditions at 1,600 factories employing 2 million workers, according to unions.

This new one has won support from brands like Sweden-based H&M, but so far, not Walmart or Target or American companies more generally. U.S. retailers supported the overall goals but resisted agreeing to the legally binding aspect of the agreement, Reuters reported, sources said.

The Requirements

According to The New York Times, the 26-month agreement includes the ability to subject retailers to legal action if their factories fail to meet labor safety standards, shared responsibility for governance between suppliers and brands, safety committee training and monitoring overseen by the Bangladeshi-based RMG Sustainability Council, and an independent complaints mechanism. Signers committed to expanding the agreement to at least one other country beyond Bangladesh.

As the previous agreement was expiring, clothing brands, factories and UNI Global union, a Swiss-based federation of unions across 150 countries, argued over what would come next.

In this country, it was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers were killed either by fire, smoke or jumping to their deaths from a locked factory floor, that propelled unionization of garment workers and improved industrial standards. The garment workers union, now called UNITE HERE, continues to press for international rules for factory work. In some parts of the world, we’re still seeing child labor and work conditions that cry out for attention — with or without legal commitments for humanitarian concern.

We can’t easily change our labor ways, just the stages on which we pursue the age-old fight between concern for worker and concern for corporate profit.

What’s Been Learned

A century later in this country, in a world where billionaires are competing to see which will be the first to launch high-priced space tourist flights, we’re still fighting about factory worker safety, if not specific fire safety requirements, that range from environmental effects of chemicals and pollutants to protections in the workplace. It was only last week that a substance we’ve recognized for decades as carcinogenic agricultural product was eliminated from use.

And worker safety issues are at the base of whether and how to protect workers and consumers during a time of pandemic, whether vaccines and masks are required, about the appropriate role of government in inspecting worksite safety. In some parts of the world, we’re still seeing child labor and work conditions that cry out for attention,

Of course, for many industries, particularly those dependent on low wages, worker “safety” seems a concept divorced from, say, the need to raise minimum wage levels or to extend child-care or health benefits. If nothing else, the current perception that it is difficult to get workers back into their workplaces ought to be a bright, blinking sign that adjustments are needed in the employer-worker relationship.

OSHA inspections and enforcement seriously slowed under the Trump administration, and Team Biden has vowed to make workplaces safer, but has been slowed by pandemic and lack of inspectors. Biden’s goal of doubling OSHA’s inspection force by 2024 faces challenges from recruiting and training people with the needed skills to convincing lawmakers to pay for the new positions.

Simply put, if we love our T-shirts — or our processed chicken and meat or our phones — we ought to care how they get made.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer