Oliver calls out Gap and Walmart for unsafe factories

Two years ago the collapse of the Savar building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed more than 1,000 people. It brought to the forefront the terrible labor practices carried out by garmentmakers in the country and elsewhere in the world. Outrage was directed toward the brands that used the factory to produce goods, like Joe Fresh, the Children’s Place and Walmart.

Pressure mounted and a group of major North American retailers released a plan by July 2013 to improve worker safety in Bangladesh. Problem solved!

Well, not so much. In reality, two years later there is little significant change with regards to labor conditions for many garment workers in the world. Last week, comedian John Oliver used his program to show how this episode is just a part of a larger cycle where outrage against labor practices yields announcements from brands that don’t change anything. Another campaign is launched or a tragedy happens and it starts all over again.

Each time people feel like things are better and then the problems are soon forgotten.

“I seems sweatshops aren’t one of those problems from the ’90’s we got rid of, like Donnie Wahlberg. They’re more like one of those ’90’s problems we are still dealing with, like Mark Wahlberg,” says Oliver.

Oliver pins the blame on the trend of fast fashion. In short, it places an emphasis on new clothing and trends that are cheap and easy to access. Consumers can feel like they are hip with the latest jeans without breaking the bank. To accomplish this, costs have to be kept low. Enter sweatshops and unsafe factories.

The segment brings up two very important things. First, is that our behaviors, seemingly disconnected from people on the other side of the world, have a direct impact. Second, long-term change requires sustained efforts as opposed to one off victories. Plenty of groups continue to campaign for worker rights, but they are heard only when a tragedy takes place. And the answers involve a combination of people changing behaviors in the West, better protections and regulations by governments and ethical business practices by corporations.

This sounds an awfully lot like the way people engage with development.

(cough)Nepal and Haiti(cough)

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.