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[5 comments]

Bangladeshi Apparel Workers Named 'Newsmaker of the Year'

January 3, 2014

While most of the candidates for Women's Wear Daily's "Newsmaker of the Year" were trendsetting designers or risk-taking execs at fashion houses or retailers, the winner for 2013 was the Bangladeshi Apparel Worker.

In writing up its selection, WWD said that last April's building collapse at Rana Plaza in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, that killed 1,132 workers, "stirred a global outcry and raised a fundamental question: What is the human price of cheap fashion?"

News of shabby working conditions and accidents — including a factory fire six months earlier that killed 112 workers — had been circulating for some time as the region quickly became the second largest apparel producer. But the Rana Plaza tragedy appeared to singularly put sweatshop issues back in the media's spotlight for the first time since 1996, when Kathie Lee Gifford apparel, headed to Walmart, was found to be made by child labor in Honduras.

The blame for Rana Plaza spread from local government corruption to greedy factory owners but also to manufacturers and retailers choosing to source from the country despite its poor track record of safety and labor abuses.

Albeit amid fits of violence over working conditions, progress is reportedly being made. Two groups — one European-based, another led by unions and major U.S. retailers — have set legally enforceable working standards in the region. A recent agreement lifted the country's minimum wage and factory owners are said to be doing a better job addressing safety and worker's rights.

In December, four retailers — BonmarchĂ©, El Corte InglĂ©s, Loblaw and Primark — pledged to contribute to an estimated $40 million compensation fund for the Rana Plaza victims' families. Others are being criticized for not contributing but are said to be reluctant due to possible legal culpability.

Some reports on the Rana Plaza aftermath explore why major investments in oversight and establishing standards since the Kathie Lee Gifford incident are failing to prevent such tragedies.

Another front page article in The New York Times on New Years Eve exploring "the cost of global demands for cheap, fast factories" points out that the pressures are not only around low prices but also fast turnaround with "consumers expecting to see new things every time they visit a store."

"Consumers know little about these factories, even as global brands promise that their clothes are made in safe environments," the Times article stated.

FINANCIALS:     [NYSE:WMT] [ ]

Discussion Questions:

How big an issue is sweatshop labor for clothing manufacturers and retailers? Are messages around the "human price of cheap fashion" resonating more with consumers? Was the Rana Plaza tragedy a wakeup call for the apparel industry?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How concerned are American consumers about "human price of cheap fashion?"

Comments:

The Rana Plaza should have been a wakeup call for the apparel industry, but I fear it really wasn't. Why? Because humans are really good at disassociating the end product from the means with which they came to be, and lobbying entities are really happy to keep it that way.

Annie Lennox (yes,the singer) once said that people think meat comes from plastic wrapped packages and if they really internalized the fact that it comes from animals raised to be food, they'd never eat it again. I've never forgotten that quote, because for me it's quite true. Many years ago I re-associated meat with the animals it comes from, and I was never able to eat it again.

I think the same is true of clothes. They come on hangers or in plastic bags. We have almost no visibility into the people and places that make them. So we, as consumers, keep voting with our wallets. Until and unless we change our votes, the industry will carry on.

It's an incredible irony that the Shirtwaist Factory fire in NY in 1911 killed a total of 146 people. Because it was highly visible, laws in this country were changed forever. But more than a thousand people died in Rana Plaza (and another couple thousand were injured)and the industry is moving slowly. It's a shame, but it is what it is. Sad.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Out of sight, out of mind.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

I have listened, read and viewed a lot of media attention about this topic. But in all my years the only small amount of person to person conversation regarding this topic was the wondering if sales might be effected "this time." For thousands of years the world has relished the savings made possible by forced labor. The concern for change is in the wrong direction here, that is, if humanitarian issues are at all a genuine priority.

'gjarnoldjr'

Surely the question should be, how big an issue should sweatshop labor be rather than how big an issue is it? There is actually a difference.

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Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

End product is what matters to the customer, not how and where it is produced, as long as it is cheap, trendy, and doesn't harm them. Sweatshops are a big issue, but is the shopper willing to pay the price? The apparel industry has not seen a transforming innovation for many years. Faster and cheaper clothes are produced just by moving manufacturing bases east. It's time for manufacturing transformation in the way the clothes of the future will be produced.

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Shilpa Rao, Practice Head - Merchandising, Tata Consultancy Services

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