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Originally published Friday, May 2, 2014 at 3:58 PM

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Guest: How to raise Bangladesh labor conditions a year after factory collapsed

There’s still plenty of work to improve working conditions in Bangladesh a year after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, writes guest columnist Nadia Mahmud.

Special to The Times


A YEAR has passed since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 men, women and children, and injured more than 2,500.

When the April 24, 2013, disaster first made headlines, people were eager to help. In Seattle, my nonprofit organization Jolkona quickly raised $24,000 to provide prosthetic limbs and other aid.

My husband and I have since met with several of the amputees in Dhaka’s Savar neighborhood. They were grateful to be alive, but struggling to get used to their disabilities and find jobs they can still do to support their families. They’re also traumatized by their experience — one had to cut off her own arm to escape the rubble — and mourning mothers and sisters who didn’t make it out alive.

A year later, there’s still plenty of work to do. We can start with a little spring cleaning.

Take a look through your closets and dresser drawers. How many labels say “Made in Bangladesh?” A handful? More? You probably saved $10 or more for each item, compared to buying a similar product made in America or another higher-wage country.

Your first impulse may be to shrug and say something like, “Don’t buy clothes made in Bangladesh, or from other countries with poor wages and working conditions.”

Problem solved? Not quite.

Even if you can afford to spend significantly more on every single thing you wear, where does that leave millions of Bangladeshi workers, mostly women, and their families? How can developing countries lift themselves out of poverty if we take away the jobs instead of working together to improve conditions?

In 2012, the textile industry accounted for 45 percent of all industrial employment in Bangladesh. There are more than 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh today employing 4 million workers. Most of them are young women whose families depend on their incomes to pay for food, shelter and education for the next generation.

After decades of severe poverty, the country is finally making progress, which has been accelerated by the disaster.

The Bangladeshi government raised the minimum wage in November, and dozens of new trade unions have formed. More than 150 apparel companies from Europe, North America, Asia and Australia have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

Instead of boycotting clothing made in Bangladesh, shoppers can sign online petitions to urge large corporations like Wal-Mart or Gap to join these companies in promising to hold their international factories to safe standards.

If major corporations work together and are willing to pay just a little bit more, we can expect to see major improvements in the next five years.

A widely cited 2011 report by O’Rouke Group Partners found that a $14 polo shirt made in Bangladesh costs the retailer only $5.67. Making all of Bangladesh’s factories safe would cost about 30 cents more per garment, a minor dent in the profit margins.

You can also go online and join the call to action for clothing firms to contribute to the compensation funds for medical bills and lost wages for victims and family members of the Rana Plaza disaster — or make a contribution yourself.

Next time you’re browsing the racks at Nordstrom, Macy’s, Zara, H&M, Costco and elsewhere, be mindful of where the clothes are made.

When you wear a garment made in Bangladesh or another developing country, think about the people who made the shirt on your back.

Nadia Mahmud is CEO of Jolkona, a Seattle nonprofit focused on South and Southeast Asia. She has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington.

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