The Battle for a Safer Bangladesh Goes On
In the year since the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 workers, efforts have been continuing to improve safety in the country’s garment industry. Although progress has undoubtedly been made, two recent reports highlight how divisions within and among some major brands may be hampering efforts to prevent another catastrophic collapse or fire.
The first from The New York Times reports on how western retailers and apparel brands began a major push to inspect factories in Bangladesh following last year’s tragic incidents in the country. While their efforts have won praise in some quarters, others feel that the formation of two disparate groups may be diluting the overall impact.
The Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety, which has a dominance of European brands amongst its more than 150 members, has inspected some 300 factories to date with a goal to inspect all of its 1,500 factories by late October 2014. Meanwhile the other group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which is comprised of 26 U.S. and Canadian brands, has completed 400 inspections out of a total of 630 of its members factories and expects to complete all of its inspections by July.
Inspectors from both groups have found serious problems in many factories, including structural weaknesses and potential fire hazards. The European-dominated accord’s inspections have so far resulted in four factories being closed temporarily for fear of collapse with four more under close government officials’ scrutiny. Despite having carried out more inspections, the alliance has had only one factory closed, prompting questions about the thoroughness of its inspectors from some accord members.
The alliance claims it is working closely with local unions and workers to improve working conditions, and also has asked the Bangladeshi authorities to close four more factories following inspections. Some alliance members have criticized the accord for failing to make a provision for wages for workers who are laid off after the temporary closure of a factory. There also have been some differences of opinion over the process for when a factory is closed and whether inspection reports should be made public.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the arguments, there is no doubt that all brands face a massive challenge in improving factory conditions in the country. The combined groups only will be inspecting some 2,000 of the estimated 5,000 garment factories in Bangladesh, with many of the others thought to have even worse conditions. Despite the difficulties they collectively face, Dara O’Rourke, a workplace expert at the University of California, Berkeley, put the situation in perspective.
“The accord and the alliance are taking on the lowest end of a low-road industry,” O’Rourke said, according to The New York Times. “They’re trying to bring up the worst garment conditions in the world. What they’re doing is really, really hard.”
Another report, this time from The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), highlights internal tensions at Nike, a major player in the manufacture of garments around the world. The article examines the conflict between the production team, which has a priority to cut manufacturing costs, and the corporate responsibility team, which has a mission to improve safety. It’s a fascinating read, detailing the long-standing and ongoing effort of the company’s management team to strike a balance between these often conflicting priorities.
It’s the last part of the article though that brings into stark relief the size of the challenge facing companies sourcing products from factories in the region. The Wall Street Journal reports that Nike’s code of conduct posters were taken down the day after the company pulled out of one Bangladesh garment factory. Another buyer had been found whose margins dictated that the factory would need to double its overtime hours.
“They want their clothes on time no matter what,” the factory manager said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “We had to tell the workers that the new buyer has a new mindset, and that means different rules."
In this world, it’s all too clear that profitability is the business driver, not safe, ethical working conditions. That means, at least to my way of thinking, that those of us who create the demand are as much responsible for the poor working conditions as the Bangladeshi factory owners and managers who permit them.
“Social accountability has moved beyond the ‘cut-and-run’ mentality prevalent in the apparel industry of the '80s to a more enlightened model of capacity building,” according to my colleague, QCA executive director for compliance, Dee Fenton. “It’s not about a code of conduct, it’s whether a company is actively monitoring their supply bases and what they do with the information collected in audits.”
While it’s encouraging to see the challenge in Bangladesh being addressed by organizations like the alliance and the accord, it’s disappointing that the fragmented approach means that it’s not as effective as it might otherwise be. The garment industry, like the promotional products industry, needs to be able to speak with one strong voice to ensure that improvements can be made in compliance and factory safety in all parts of the world.
Jeff is executive director of the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA). Prior to that, he was responsible for developing safe and compliant brand merchandise for Michelin. He has worked with brands in publishing, consumer products, broadcasting and film for over 30 years. Follow Jeff on Twitter, and QCA on Facebook.