After a factory fire killed 112 workers in November, clothing brands and retailers continued to reject a proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh’s $20bn (€15bn) garment industry. Instead, companies expanded a patchwork system of private audits and training that labour groups say improves very little in a country where official inspections are lax and factory owners have close relations with the government.
In the meantime, the number of deaths and injuries has mounted. In the five months since last year’s deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., there were 40 other fires in Bangladeshi factories, killing nine workers and injuring more than 660, according to a labour organisation tied to the AFL-CIO umbrella group of American unions.
Wednesday’s collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed more than 300 people is the worst disaster to hit Bangladesh’s garment industry.
Rescue teams found around 50 people alive last night on the third floor of the garment factory.
Some garment workers were still trapped alive yesterday, pinned beneath tonnes of metal and concrete. Crews struggled to save them, knowing they probably had just a few hours left to live, as relatives clashed with police.
“Improvement is not happening,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, who said a total of 600 workers have died in factory accidents in the last decade. “The multinational companies claim a lot of things. They claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system,” Amin said. “But yet these things keep happening.”
What role retailers should play in making working conditions safer at the factories that manufacture their apparel has become a central issue for the $1-trillion global clothing industry.
The clothing brands say they are working to improve safety, but the size of the garment industry — some 4,000 factories in Bangladesh alone — means such efforts skim the surface. That opaqueness is further muddied by subcontracting. Retailers can be unwittingly involved with problematic factories when their main suppliers farm out work to others to ensure orders are filled on time.
“We remain committed to promoting stronger safety measures in factories and that work continues,” Wal-Mart said after the Rana Plaza collapse. The world’s largest retailer says there was no authorised Wal-Mart production in the building. One of the Rana Plaza factories, Ether Tex, listed Wal-Mart as a customer on its website.
Labour groups argue the best way to clean up Bangladesh’s garment factories already is outlined in a nine-page safety proposal drawn up by Bangladeshi and international unions.
The plan would ditch government inspections, which are infrequent and easily subverted by corruption, and establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions. The inspections would be funded by contributions from the companies of up to $500,000 per year.
The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers — including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M — but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly.
At the time, Wal-Mart’s representative told the meeting it was “not financially feasible ... to make such investments,” according to minutes of the meeting.
After last year’s Tazreen blaze, Bangladeshi union president Amin said he and international labour activists renewed a push for the independent inspectorate plan, but none of the factories or big brands would agree.
This week, none of the large clothing brands or retailers would comment about the proposal.
In December, however, a spokesperson for the Gap — which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains — said the company turned down the proposal because it did not want to be vulnerable to lawsuits and did not want to pay factories more money to help with safety upgrades.
H&M also did not sign on to the proposal because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be taking on the responsibility, Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues, said in December.