DHAKA, Bangladesh – As Bangladesh reels from the deaths of around 300 garment workers in a building collapse, the refusal of global retailers to pay for strict nationwide factory inspections is bringing renewed scrutiny to an industry that has profited from a country notorious for its hazardous workplaces and subsistence-level wages.
After a factory fire killed 112 garment workers in November, clothing brands and retailers continued to reject a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry. Instead, companies expanded a patchwork system of private audits and training that labor 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, there were 40 other fires in Bangladeshi factories, killing nine workers and injuring more than 660, according to a labor organization tied to the AFL-CIO umbrella group of American unions. Manufacturers dispute that there have been that many recent incidents.
Wednesday's collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed more than 300 people is the worst disaster to hit Bangladesh's fast-growing and politically powerful garment industry. For those attempting to overhaul conditions for workers who are paid as little as $38 a month, it is a grim reminder that corporate social responsibility programs are failing to deliver on lofty promises.
“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.
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.
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 obtained by The Associated Press.
After last year's Tazreen blaze, Bangladeshi union president Amin said he and international labor activists renewed a push for the independent inspectorate plan, but none of the factories or big brands would agree.