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One Year After Horrific Building Collapse, Bangladeshi Garment Workers Still Toil in Deadly Conditions


May 2014

Sammy Almashat, M.D., M.P.H.

On April 24, 2013, the lives of over 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh readying for a grueling day shift were extinguished in an instant.[1] Housing a sprawling garment manufacturing plant, the Rana Plaza building outside the capital, Dhaka, collapsed onto the workers inside, burying many alive. The collapse was the world’s deadliest industrial disaster since the 1984 Bhopal chemical spill across the border in India.[2]

For many in the West, the disaster — the aftermath of which was broadcast around the world — offered a rare glimpse of the daily reality for hundreds of millions of garment and other low-wage laborers toiling away in so-called developing nations producing goods for Western shelves. Public outrage after the accident was reflected in statements from figures as notable as Pope Francis, who decried as “slave labor” the conditions prevailing at Rana Plaza at the time of the collapse.[3] Even some of the Western corporations whose garment production at some point involved the plant felt compelled to acknowledge their role and commit to compensating the families of the deceased (although other corporate customers attempted to distance themselves from the tragedy).[4]

However, none of the corporations that profited from the workers’ labor could claim that this was an unforeseen tragedy. Though the Rana Plaza collapse was by far the deadliest, it was certainly not the first worksite disaster to hit Bangladesh’s garment industry in recent years. Nor, sadly, has it been the last.

Tragedy the norm

Bangladesh’s garment industry has grown dramatically over the past two decades,[5] with its rock-bottom wages and its immense, precariously employed and non-unionized labor force highly attractive to multinational clothing manufacturers and retailers. An estimated 4 million garment workers are employed in 5,000 factories across the country, and the industry is expected to quadruple in size over the next 20 years.[6]

Bangladesh’s rise to become the second-largest garment exporter in the world[7] has resulted in feverish construction of a growing number of garment plants. Shoddy construction and a lack of even the most minimal safety precautions have led to the following major incidents since 2005 (all incidents prior to 2012 were gleaned from a detailed November 2012 report by the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European anti-sweatshop group[8]):

  • April 11, 2005: A factory collapses in Savar, killing 64 workers and injuring 74. Workers reportedly tried to alert managers of cracks and other safety concerns with the building in the days leading up to the incident.

  • Feb. 23, 2006: At a plant in Chittagong, a fire caused by an electrical short circuit kills over 60 workers and injures more than 100. Locked exits and the lack of any fire safety equipment contribute to the high death toll. Among the dead are three girls ages 12, 13 and 14.

  • Feb. 25, 2006: A five-story building in Dhaka collapses while undergoing renovations, killing 22 and injuring 50 construction workers, bystanders and residents of the nearby slum. The same day, 57 workers are injured while trying to escape through narrow exits after a transformer explosion in a Chittagong factory.

  • March 6, 2006: A fire caused by an electrical short circuit at a plant in Gazipur kills three. Approximately fifty workers are injured in an ensuing stampede.

  • Feb. 25, 2010: Twenty-one workers die and 50 are injured in a fire that erupts at the Garib and Garib garment plant during the night shift.

  • Dec. 14, 2010: A fire on the upper floors of the That's It Sportswear garment plant kills 29 and seriously injures 11. Some workers jump to their deaths from the upper-story windows rather than face immolation. As with previous incidents, the fire was triggered by an electrical short circuit.

  • Dec. 3, 2011: A boiler explosion in a factory in Old Dhaka causes a stampede for the exits. Two workers are killed and 64 injured.

  • Nov. 24, 2012:[9] A fire engulfs the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Dhaka, killing 112 workers. On the night the fire erupts, more than 1,150 workers are in the building working overtime shifts to produce clothes for international corporations such as Wal-Mart and Sears (though both companies claimed that they had no idea that clothes for their stores were being made at this plant). A Bangladeshi government report charges the plant’s owner for “unpardonable negligence,” stating that his management team prevented workers from leaving their stations, even after a fire alarm sounded.

  • April 24, 2013: A total of 1,132 workers are killed and more than 2,500 injured when the eight-story Rana Plaza building, which houses several garment factories, collapses.[10] A Bangladeshi government report finds that the building was constructed with substandard materials and was in violation of numerous building codes.[11] On April 23, one day before the collapse, cracks appeared in the building, causing it to shake and workers to flee outside.[12] Yet the factory’s owner ordered the workers back in the next morning.[13]

  • May 8, 2013:[14] Just two weeks after the Rana Plaza tragedy, eight workers are killed in another fire at a Dhaka sweater factory.

  • Oct. 8, 2013:[15] A fire breaks out in a garment factory outside Dhaka, killing 10 people.

  • March 6, 2014:[16] A fire destroys a garment factory in Dhaka. No workers are in the building at the time, and there are no casualties.

Tip of the iceberg

Horrific as these incidents are, they are merely the most visible of the myriad occupational hazards afflicting Bangladesh’s textile labor army. Far less attention has been paid to the chronic safety and health dangers that are an inherent feature of garment manufacturing.

The constant repetitive motions and inhuman pace of production inflict enduring musculoskeletal injuries of the sort that are, unfortunately, also common in many American workplaces.[17] Dust and other aerosolized particulate matter — especially in the poorly ventilated rooms characteristic of Bangladeshi garment plants[18] — can be inhaled, potentially leading to lung damage.[19] Workers risk having limbs crushed or cut by machinery and cutting tools used in the production process. High noise levels can pose hearing risks, and the temperatures generated within the overcrowded plants can result in heat-related injuries.

Psychological stresses stemming from the grueling work and the treatment meted out by management are likely even more pervasive. More than 80 percent of the country’s garment workers are women[20] who are often subjected to sexual harassment at jobs on which they and their families depend for survival. Sexual harassment and other forms of verbal and physical abuse are widespread in the factories, according to the nonprofit Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.[21],[22]

Worker repression underlies abysmal conditions

The intimidation of workers extends well beyond the factories. The overlords of the country’s garment industry, often with the tacit approval of a government at the mercy of foreign investors,[23] have harassed, beaten and even killed leaders seeking to unionize the textile labor force.[24] On April 5, 2012, Aminul Islam, a prominent labor leader and organizer, was found dead, his body mutilated and dumped on the side of a road. Local advocates attributed the act to government security forces serving the interests of the country’s powerful garment owners.[25]

The publicity surrounding the Rana Plaza disaster spurred the passage of legislation that made it easier for workers to form unions, and forced owners to subsequently accede to the creation of 50 factory-level unions.[26] However, Human Rights Watch reported that, based on interviews with 47 workers in 21 factories in and around Dhaka after October 2013, worker intimidation remains rife, with workers beaten, fired and attacked by local gangsters for trying to unionize.[27]

Previously, less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s garment workers were unionized, according to the GlobalPost news site.[28] As a result, in 2013, garment workers were paid less in Bangladesh than anywhere else in the world, with monthly wages starting at just $37.[29] After Rana Plaza, garment workers successfully fought for a minimum wage increase to $68 per month, but this is still lower than the minimum wage of other leading apparel-producing countries in Asia,[30] and even this paltry mandate is allegedly being flouted by some factory owners.[31]

(Mostly Western) clothing corporations feign innocence

Most corporations whose products were made in Rana Plaza initially distanced themselves from the collapse, offering only shallow expressions of shock and sympathy for the families of the killed and injured and insisting that ties to the facility were minimal.[32] Only one retailer, the British company Primark, pledged to offer both immediate and long-term assistance for injured victims and families of the deceased. Two other companies made less concrete promises of future compensation. (Britain’s Guardian newspaper has published an online interactive guide with floor-by-floor details of the involvement of international clothing corporations in the Rana Plaza assembly plant at the time of, and in the year prior to, the collapse.[33])

None of the companies mentioned the long series of accidents (listed above) that had occurred with striking consistency in the years prior to the collapse. They also omitted that most international retailers had twice rebuffed attempts by international labor organizations to garner formal commitments from them to improve labor conditions at the Bangladeshi plants.

In 2011, the International Labor Rights Forum presented the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement to over a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers, including Wal-Mart, Gap and H&M (Wal-Mart, but not Gap and H&M, sold clothes made in Rana Plaza[34]). According to Time magazine, the companies rejected the agreement “because of the extra costs involved and the possibility of incurring legal action.”[35] An updated proposal was offered to the corporations in November 2012, but only two companies signed on.[36]

Rana Plaza changed this dynamic, as the international brands for which Bangladeshi workers — at Rana Plaza and elsewhere — were producing clothes came under intense scrutiny and could no longer dismiss such entreaties with little fanfare.

In May 2013, nearly three dozen European retailers signed a legally binding agreement,[37] the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, in which they agreed to underwrite inspections and any necessary safety improvements to Bangladeshi garment plants.[38] By March 2014, a total of 150 clothing brands from over 20 countries had joined the accord.[39] A group of 26 North American retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target and Gap, refused to join the agreement, instead entering into a parallel arrangement, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.[40]

Both agreements provide initial financing for inspections, but the North American retailers’ agreement, unlike the European-led accord, does not guarantee financing for all required safety upgrades and — crucially — is not legally binding on the companies.[41]

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the United Nations’ International Labour Organization set up a Donor Trust Fund to provide financial compensation for the victims and their families.[42] However, almost a year had passed since the incident before Wal-Mart, Gap and Children’s Place became the first American companies to donate to the fund.[43] The three companies donated a total of just $2.2 million, an amount dismissed as “pitifully low” by Irene Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, which had fought hard to create the fund.[44]

Commenting on Wal-Mart’s meager contribution relative to its enormous revenues, Zeldenrust noted: “This is the first time Wal-Mart has contributed to any compensation fund for loss of income and medical costs — that is a positive step. But this … is a token amount considering Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world.”[45] Overall, as of March 28, only $14 million of the $40 million sought for the victims had been committed to the fund by clothing corporations.[46]

Little change for Bangladesh’s ‘wretched’

As the media’s attention has since turned elsewhere, business as usual has returned to Bangladesh’s garment districts, with few, if any, repercussions for the international manufacturers and retailers involved. The first safety inspections mandated by the two safety accords are now underway, with 250 factories (of the 5,000 in operation in the country) scheduled to be inspected every month.[47]

However, these inspections have come too late for the (at least) 18 workers killed on the job in Bangladeshi garment plants since the Rana Plaza collapse. Furthermore, the inspections are focused on preventing further disasters similar to Rana Plaza and will almost certainly have no effect on the chronic illnesses and injuries resulting from the grueling pace of the manufacturing process itself.[48] Continued crackdowns on worker organizing efforts leave little hope that the existing power relations between worker and owner (who are themselves beholden to Western multinational corporations) within the garment industry will change to any great extent.

Ultimately, until the neoliberal economic policies underlying the working conditions in Bangladesh and other so-called developing nations are successfully overthrown, the “slave labor” described by the pope will continue to replenish the stocks of trendy fashion outlets across the global North. And what philosopher and writer Frantz Fanon once dubbed the “wretched of the earth” will continue to die or be maimed doing so.

Clothing manufacturers and retailers have largely shirked any responsibility for Rana Plaza and other Bangladeshi garment factory tragedies. The Clean Clothes Campaign has been at the forefront of the effort to hold accountable Western corporations operating in Bangladesh. The organization has set up a Web page, “Who Needs to Pay Up,” which contains a list of companies that have, and have not, donated to the Donor Trust Fund to compensate victims of the Rana Plaza collapse and their families. Companies that have signed on to the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (as opposed to the nonbinding Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety) can be found here.

Western consumers can aid the campaign by buying clothes only from manufacturers and retailers that have signed the legally binding accord and given adequately to the Donor Trust Fund, while boycotting the rest. But it is doubtful whether a boycott alone can succeed in changing the corporations’ calculus. Organizations such as the International Labor Rights Forum have called for more direct actions, such as signing petitions and protesting at store locations and social media sites, to shame the companies into meeting their obligations. Standing in solidarity with Bangladeshi workers through, for example, participation in the Clean Clothes Campaign’s Living Wage movement is another means by which Western consumers can go beyond individual purchasing decisions to alleviate some of the miserable conditions for the workers who make our clothes.



References

[1] Yardley J. Report on Deadly Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Finds Widespread Blame. New York Times. May 22, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/world/asia/report-on-bangladesh-building-collapse-finds-widespread-blame.html. Accessed March 31, 2014.

[2] Thomasson E. Inspections highlight safety risks at Bangladesh factories. Reuters. March 10, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/10/bangladesh-inspections-idUSL6N0M72SE20140310. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[3] Calamur K. Pope Compares Bangladesh Factory Workers To 'Slave Labor'. National Public Radio. May 1, 2013. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/05/01/180406283/pope-compares-bangladesh-factory-workers-to-slave-labor. Accessed March 31, 2014.

[4] Greenhouse S. Retailers Split on Contrition After Collapse of Factories. New York Times. April 30, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/01/world/asia/retailers-split-on-bangladesh-factory-collapse.html. Accessed April 8, 2014.

[5] Mustafa S. Dhaka factory collapse: Can clothes industry change? BBC. April 25, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22302595. Accessed April 8, 2014.

[6] Bursting at the seams: Bangladesh’s clothing industry. The Economist. Oct. 26, 2013. http://www.economist.com/news/business/21588393-workers-continue-die-unsafe-factories-industry-keeps-booming-bursting-seams. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[7] Reuters. Bangladesh Jan exports rise 7.8 pct on garment sales. Feb. 16, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/16/bangladesh-economy-exports-idUSL3N0LL09W20140216. Accessed April 9, 2014.

[8] Clean Clothes Campaign. Hazardous workplaces: Making the Bangladesh garment industry safe (Appendix 1). November 2012. http://www.cleanclothes.org/resources/publications/2012-11-hazardousworkplaces.pdf/view. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[9] Manik J, Yardley J. Bangladesh Finds Gross Negligence in Factory Fire. New York Times. Dec. 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/world/asia/bangladesh-factory-fire-caused-by-gross-negligence.html. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[10] Hossain E. Rana Plaza Collapse Victims Still Waiting for Compensation. Huffington Post. Aug. 6, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/06/rana-plaza-collapse-victims-compensation_n_3713408.html. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[11] Yardley J. Report on Deadly Factory Collapse in Bangladesh Finds Widespread Blame. New York Times. May 22, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/world/asia/report-on-bangladesh-building-collapse-finds-widespread-blame.html. Accessed March 31, 2014.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ahmed F. Eight killed in Bangladesh garment factory fire. CNN. May 9, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/08/world/asia/bangladesh-fatal-fire/http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/08/world/asia/bangladesh-fatal-fire/. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[15] Associated Press. Bangladesh garment factory fire in Gazipur kills workers. The Guardian. Oct. 8, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/08/bangladesh-garment-factory-fire-kills-nine.

[16] Reuters. Fire breaks out at Bangladesh garments factory, no casualties. Mar. 6, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/06/us-bangladesh-fire-idUSBREA2510V20140306. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[17] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away From Work, 2012, p. 8. Nov. 26, 2013. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/osh2.pdf. Accessed April 22, 2014.

[18] Daniel FJ et al. Good Intent a Casualty of Factory Crash. New York Times. Jun. 17, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/18/business/global/good-intent-a-casualty-of-factory-crash.html. Accessed April 8, 2014.

[19] State Compensation Insurance Fund, California. Garment Worker Safety. https://www.statefundca.com/safety/safetymeeting/SafetyMeetingArticle.aspx?ArticleID=52. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[20] Yardley J. Export Powerhouse Feels Pangs of Labor Strife. New York Times. Aug. 23, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/world/asia/as-bangladesh-becomes-export-powerhouse-labor-strife-erupts.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[21] Pearlman A. Bangladesh government navigates increased scrutiny on labor rights. Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights. Aug. 27, 2012. http://www.globallabourrights.org/press/bangladesh-government-navigates-increased-scrutiny-on-labor-rights. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[22] Kuennsberg L. Exposure investigation uncovers violence and abuse in Dhaka sweatshop. ITV. Mar. 3, 2014. http://www.itv.com/news/2014-02-06/exposure-rana-plaza-bangladesh-garment-factory-conditions/. Accessed April 8, 2014.

[23] Sattar M. Bangladesh's garment workers brave deadly fires to make luxury American clothing. GlobalPost. May 1, 2012. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120430/bangladesh-garment-workers-brave-deadly-fires. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[24] Human Rights Watch. Bangladesh: Protect Garment Workers’ Rights. Feb. 6, 2014. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/02/06/bangladesh-protect-garment-workers-rights. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[25] Sattar M. Bangladesh's garment workers brave deadly fires to make luxury American clothing. GlobalPost. May 1, 2012. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120430/bangladesh-garment-workers-brave-deadly-fires. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[26] Human Rights Watch. Bangladesh: Protect Garment Workers’ Rights. Feb. 6, 2014. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/02/06/bangladesh-protect-garment-workers-rights. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Sattar M. Bangladesh's garment workers brave deadly fires to make luxury American clothing. GlobalPost. May 1, 2012. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120430/bangladesh-garment-workers-brave-deadly-fires. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[29] Greenhouse S, Yardley J. Global Retailers Join Safety Plan for Bangladesh. New York Times. May 13, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/world/asia/bangladeshs-cabinet-approves-changes-to-labor-laws.html?ref=global&pagewanted=all. Accessed April 1, 2014. “For years, Bangladesh has seen some of the worst practices in the global garment industry. Wages are the lowest in the world, starting at roughly $37 a month.”

[30] Al-Mahmood S. Bangladesh Factory Owners Wary of Wage Increase. Wall Street Journal. Dec. 4, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304579404579235351833424162. Accessed April 8, 2014. See Pay Gap chart.

[31] Reuters. Bangladesh Jan exports rise 7.8 pct on garment sales. Feb. 16, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/16/bangladesh-economy-exports-idUSL3N0LL09W20140216. Accessed April 9, 2014. “However, industry leaders said all factory owners had not implemented the minimum wage of $68 per month - up from $38…”

[32] Bloomfield A. Bangladesh Factory Collapse: How Benetton and International Retailers Are Responding. PolicyMic. May 2, 2013. http://www.policymic.com/articles/39239/bangladesh-factory-collapse-how-benetton-and-international-retailers-are-responding. Accessed April 8, 2014.

[33] The Guardian. Rana Plaza factory collapse compensation – interactive guide. http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2014/mar/17/rana-plaza-factory-collapse-compensation-interactive-guide. Accessed April 7, 2014.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Campbell C. Bangladesh: Eight Killed in Factory Fire; Collapse Toll Hits 1,000. Time. May 9, 2013. http://world.time.com/2013/05/09/latest-bangladesh-garment-factory-disaster-spotlights-continuing-safety-concerns/. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Greenhouse S. U.S. Retailers See Big Risk in Safety Plan for Factories in Bangladesh. New York Times. May 22, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/business/legal-experts-debate-us-retailers-risks-of-signing-bangladesh-accord.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[38] Two Plans for Safety at Bangladesh Factories. New York Times. Sept. 1, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/09/01/business/global/inspections-comparison.html. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[39] Greenhouse S. Bangladesh Inspections Find Gaps in Safety. New York Times. Mar. 11, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/12/business/safety-flaws-found-in-new-inspections-of-factories-in-bangladesh.html. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[40] Two Plans for Safety at Bangladesh Factories. New York Times. Sept. 1, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/09/01/business/global/inspections-comparison.html. Accessed April 1, 2014.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Greenhouse S. 3 Retailers Give Aid to Bangladesh Workers. New York Times. Mar. 28, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/29/business/international/3-retailers-give-to-aid-bangladesh-workers.html?hpw&rref=business. Accessed March 31, 2014.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Greenhouse S. Bangladesh Inspections Find Gaps in Safety. New York Times. Mar. 11, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/12/business/safety-flaws-found-in-new-inspections-of-factories-in-bangladesh.html. Accessed April 8, 2014.

[48] Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. May 13, 2013. http://www.bangladeshaccord.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/the_accord.pdf. Accessed April 22, 2014.

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