If you bought shirts at Wal-Mart on Black Friday, one of the 112 workers who perished in a Bangladesh garment factory fire outside the capital city of Dhaka may have had a hand in making them.
Many of the victims were burned alive in the Tazreen Fashions factory, which had too few fire exits and no working fire extinguishers. Some died when they jumped from upper-story windows to escape the flames. According to news reports, survivors said they had been ordered back to their work stations after a fire alarm had sounded.
Americans buy low-priced garments during this holiday season and beyond. They're cheap because of unsafe conditions and low wages paid to workers -- as little as 21 cents an hour, according to international labor rights organizations.
In the wake of this most deadly Bangladeshi factory fire, the spotlight is on Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. Its clothing brands were found amidst the charred debris. But Tazreen Fashions, Ltd., makes garments for a Hong Kong outsourcing company whose clients include other major retailers, including Target Corp.
Wal-Mart says its inspectors gave the factory an "orange," or high risk, safety rating in May 2011. That rating was lifted to "yellow," or medium risk, after a second inspection in August 2011.
On Monday, a Wal-Mart spokesman said the factory "was no longer authorized to provide merchandise to Wal-Mart. A supplier subcontracted with the factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies." Wal-Mart said it terminated its relationship with the supplier as of Monday.
Fires in Bangladesh garment factories have claimed 500 workers since 2006, according to the anti-sweatshop Clean Clothes Campaign in Amsterdam.
The world's second-largest garment manufacturer after China, Bangladesh has more than 4,000 clothing factories. Many of the factory buildings were built on the cheap in recent years, including the relatively new Tazreen factory.
The country's low wages and the absence of health and safety regulations make it a favorite supplier for certain retailers.
Bangladesh sells $20 billion worth of apparel annually, 80 percent to the United States and Europe. That means Western governments and their consumers have some responsibility for, and influence over, how garment workers in the country are treated.
If the Bangladeshi government won't protect its citizens, Western retailers should intervene by forcing improvements in conditions or by taking business elsewhere. Consumers need to do their part by buying clothing from responsible retail outlets that take the time to make certain their suppliers meet humane standards.
To their credit, some companies have moved aggressively by investing millions to rehabilitate buildings, upgrade electrical circuits and hire independent experts to inspect buildings. But it's not enough for a few companies to do the right thing. At a minimum, retailers must make fire safety a condition of agreements with suppliers. Consumers must insist upon it.