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Public Statements


Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. GEORGE MILLER of California. Mr. Speaker, over the past several years, more than a thousand workers have died from working in Bangladesh's garment industry.

In the latest tragedy, an eight-story building called Rana Plaza collapsed. It housed five garment factories. It has killed more than 650 workers so far, injured more than a thousand, with still more buried in the rubble. This staggering body count occurred just 5 months after the Tazreen factory fire that killed at least 112 workers. Forty more incidents, including explosions and fires, causing death and injury, have taken place since the Tazreen factory fire.

I met with one of the Tazreen survivors when she visited Washington last month. She described the outrageous working conditions leading up to the fire. She toiled in a factory with bars on the windows and no place to run if a fire broke out. She told me how she jumped from the third floor of the burning factory to save her body from the fire so her family could recognize her in case of her death, and many of her coworkers jumped with her, but did not survive the fall. During our meeting, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before the next Tazreen would take place.

Two weeks later, Rana Plaza collapsed.

Unfortunately, these tragedies in Bangladesh are not isolated, and more of these tragedies, undoubtedly, will occur unless the major international corporations that keep these dangerous factories open decide to change their business practices. Clearly, there is a greater role for the U.S. and other governments to play, including the Bangladesh Government. However, the primary burden for action now lies with the major brands and retailers.

Let's remember what is at stake here: the lives of thousands of young women and mothers trying to scrape together an existence by working 12-hour shifts for pennies a garment.

They produce clothing under contract with corporations we all know well: Walmart, J. C. Penney, Mango, Benetton, H&M, The Children's Place, GAP, and Dress Barn, among others. The clothes these women sew in Bangladesh we buy here in America. Unfortunately, these young women are caught working in a garment industry that pits supplier against supplier and country against country in a calculated race to the bottom.

Often, the margin for these corporations is subsistence wages and the needless disregard for the safety of these young women. That is the subsidy they receive--low wages and unsafe working conditions for the workers who produce these garments. Four million Bangladeshi workers in 5,000 factories provide clothing to Americans and to European brands while earning one of the lowest minimum wages in the world--about $37 a month.

But they shouldn't have to risk their lives for the fashion industry's profits.

These young women are forced to work in factories with overtaxed electrical circuits, unenforced building codes, and premises without firefighting equipment and adequate exits, and in most cases, the exits are chained closed. Americans who are the consumers of these products are increasingly worried that the label ``Made in Bangladesh'' actually means ``made in a death trap.''

Why are the managers of these factories forcing these employees to work in these deplorable conditions? Because of fear--fear that the international brands and the retailers, which we know so well, will take their orders elsewhere because of a missed day of production, a late delivery, or a minuscule increase in production costs. The brands know this. That's why I believe they bear the ultimate responsibility for the horrendously unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Corporate leaders in the fashion industry have a moral imperative to ensure that these tragedies do not happen again. These retailers and brands need to sign on to an enforceable agreement that will improve safety, called the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. It was developed by the Bangladeshi trade unions and nongovernmental organizations to prevent these types of disasters from occurring by addressing the most urgent elements:

One, public reporting of all fire and building audits conducted by independent safety experts;

Two, mandates that factory owners make timely repairs;

Three, an obligation for the brands to terminate a contract if a factory defies its responsibility to keep workers safe;

Four, the right for workers to refuse unsafe work without retribution--to be able to refuse work without being fired, being penalized--and union access to factories, among other labor protections, so they can see for themselves what are the working conditions on any given day.

To make this work, these commitments must be contained in an enforceable contract between the brands and worker representatives because it is the workers' lives that are on the line. The holding companies of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, and IZOD have signed on to this agreement already, and a major German retailer has signed on as well. Others are now meeting in Europe to discuss its provisions.

I applaud these efforts toward corporate responsibility. It is now time for the major U.S. corporations, like GAP, Walmart, and J.C. Penney, to join them, but we must also take note and call out any attempt to water down the key provisions of this agreement. Experts believe that this safety agreement will only cost a dime per garment over 5 years in order to make a real difference in the safety of these factories--a dime for the lives of these workers.

The major global brands now face a choice. They can attempt to wait out the storm and go back to business as usual and continue their race to the bottom, or they can chart a different course that includes healthy profits, without a human death toll, by signing on to an enforceable safety agreement.

I hope these American and international fashion brands sign on. In the meantime, the American consumer and those who follow the fashion industry are watching. We want to see which fashion brands will accept blood on their labels and which will not.

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