Bangladeshi women cry for their missing relatives during a prayer ceremony in Savar last week for the more than 1,100 people who died in a garment building
Bangladeshi women cry for their missing relatives during a prayer ceremony in Savar last week for the more than 1,100 people who died in a garment building structure collapse in April. (A.M. Ahad, The Associated Press)

Most us hunting for bargains in a clothing store check the price tag on a T-shirt but never look at the tag that indicates where the garment was made.

But as the recent garment factory disaster in Bangladesh shows, frequently the true cost of a piece of clothing isn't always shown on the price tag.

The April 24 disaster at a factory near Dhaka, where an eight-story factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers, is the worst in the history of the garment industry. The death toll is nearly eight times that of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911, which led to the formation of a garment workers union and a series of reforms.

But the collapse in Bangladesh also follows a fire that killed 112 in November at a factory that made goods for companies that included Wal-Mart. In fact, according to the Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Forum, at least 1,800 garment workers in Bangladesh have died in fires or other disasters in factories since 2005.

It appears there are reforms on the way after the Dhaka disaster, if somewhat late to arrive. On Monday, The New York Times reported, several of the largest apparel companies, including H&M and Inditex, which owns Zara, pledged to help pay for fire safety and building improvements in the Bangladesh factories where their goods are made. Meanwhile, the country's cabinet approved changes to labor laws, which still must be approved by parliament, to expand benefits for garment workers and remove barriers to unionization.

How much would it cost to ensure the clothes made in Bangladesh are manufactured in properly constructed buildings with fire exits, lighting, safe wiring and so forth? According to one workers' rights organization, it would cost about $3 billion, a sum that could translate to as much as 30 cents more per garment.

Safety for factory workers in developing countries is not unattainable. After years of deeply embarrassing publicity about working conditions in the Asian factories where its products are made, Nike took major steps to improve things, even publishing a complete list of the factories where its products were made and a report on its pay and working conditions.

But Nike did these things after public pressure. Major retailers can and should avoid having to respond to consumer anger by getting out in front of the problem and ensuring safe working conditions.