The Pemberton Mill collapse in 1860 bears a strong resemblance to a tragedy that occurred just a few month ago in Bangladesh. An eight-story garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka collapsed killing over 1,000 people and injuring many more. The accident is blamed on substandard construction and poor enforcement safety regulations.
The 1862 Boston Almanac describes the Pemberton Mill accident: “The Pemberton Mills at Lawrence, Mass., through a defect in the cast-iron columns supporting the interior of the building, fall-in while nearly 800 operatives are at work, and bury many in the ruins. About four hours after the fall, a fire breaks out, and destroys those not extricated from the ruins. More than 115 people perish by the awful catastrophe, and 165 are more or less injured.”
While the United States has adopted building codes and worker safety regulations to prevent industrial accidents, they still occur with regularity in countries overseas. In many respects, the factories in Bangladesh and other poor countries are no different than those operating here during the first industrial age.
The April factory collapse and the public relations fallout have forced U.S. companies to reconsider the safety of their factories overseas and those used in their supply chains. Unfortunately, improving overseas working conditions is no easy task and involves a concerted effort by a number of different parties, including retailers, suppliers, factory owners and local governments.
A coalition of U.S. retailers, including Gap Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., is reportedly close to a deal that would create a $50 million, five-year fund to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh garment factories. European retailers previously inked an agreement to improve factory safety, but most U.S. companies declined to join due to liability concerns.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the European pact involves labor groups, which would be empowered to bring disputes to a steering committee responsible for managing the safety program. Appeals would be subject to a final and binding arbitration process. Under the U.S. proposal, signatories could only be held liable if they fail to make promised financial contributions or continue to use unsafe manufacturing facilities. However, because labor organizations would not participate, it is unclear who would pursue violations.
If attempts to police their own industry fail, retailers may also be subject to additional federal regulations. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations recently conducted hearings on labor issues in Bangladesh, particularly the responsibility of U.S. corporations for overseas working conditions.