Even after the Rana Plaza disaster it is hard to get international clothing brands to do the right thing

A new report by four leading workers’ rights group shows just how hard it is to get international clothing brands to fix problems in their global supply chains despite the fact that 1,100 workers were killed in an instant in an unsafe garment factory in Bangladesh.

Three and a half years after the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, five major clothing brands – Walmart, Gap, VF, Target and Hudson’s Bay – were found to have continuing hazards and dangerous delays in fixing them.  What’s worse is that one of the three international inspection programs in Bangladesh – the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – has downplayed the problems by moving the due date for hazard correction to July 2018 and then claiming hazardous factories are “on track” to be safe by then.

Dangerous Delays on Worker Safety” was issued in November by the International Labor Rights Forum, Workers Rights Consortium, Clean Clothes Campaign and Maquila Solidarity Network.  The response of the Alliance was reported in The Guardian (UK) newspaper.

The report looked at 175 garment factories in Bangladesh that are part of international auditing programs – The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance are the two private sector initiatives, while the International Labor Organization is working with the national Bangladesh government.  The report found that of this sample of 175 factory buildings, 47% have major, uncorrected structural problems; 62% lack viable fire exits, and 62% do not have a properly functioning fire alarm system.

Of these factories, 102 plants are producing for Walmart; 37 factories are producing for the Gap; 36 factories are producing for VF Corporation (a holding company which owns multiple brands); 22 factories are producing for Target; and 6 factories are producing for the Hudson Bay company.

The 12-page report points out that:

Any of the hazards in these categories could be the cause of injury or death to workers. Structural problems that factories in the sample have failed to address including loads in multi-story factories heavier than the floors can reliably bear, cracks in beams holding up the floors, over-stressed structural columns, and similar deficiencies. Fire exit deficiencies include stairwells discharging inside buildings rather than leading outside to safety, stairwells lacking fire-rated doors, exit routes compromised by unsealed openings that would allow smoke to enter during a fire, and related issues. Problems with fire alarm systems involved delayed installation of a system or the installation of a system that does not meet standards.

Most of these factories (96% according to the report) were initially inspected more than two years ago, and have approximately 280,000 garment workers in buildings that are unsafe.

These 175 Alliance-covered factories also produce for brands that are covered by the Accord, and this overlap allow researchers to use Accord data to evaluate the status of these dual-covered factories.  At the same time, the Accord reports that 1,400 factories, or 85% of the factories it covers (including most in the 175-factory sample) are “behind schedule” in making repairs of hazards that were identified years ago.

The Accord, to its credit, at least plainly states that the original due dates for hazard corrections have been missed (“behind schedule”), and it provides detailed reports on its website on the status of each identified hazard in inspected factories.  The Alliance, on the other hand, does not provide public factory-by-factory progress reports.

Moreover, sometime this year, the Alliance decided to push the goalposts back for hazard corrections from the original dates (immediately for severe hazards to no more than several months for the most complex correction) to July 2018 when the Alliance will “sunset” or go out of existence.  In the meantime, factories that should have corrected hazards in 2015, but failed to do so, are now considered to be “on track” by the Alliance, which says it is “confident” that the hazards will be addressed 19 months from now, five years after the Alliance began.

The 26 brands that make up the Alliance are all American or Canadian clothing companies.

Why the delays that threaten so many workers?

The underlying reasons why hazard correction have not occurred on schedule include the failure of the international clothing brands to meet their promises and obligations to provide financial resources to their suppliers to fix unsafe factories; the failure of the international funding mechanism to reach factory owners who need loans; and the “itchy feet” of international brands to continue roaming the world for new production locations.

Even under the terms of Accord, which requires signatory brands to ensure that owners of supplier factories have the financial resources required to correct hazards, international clothing companies have failed to provide the funds needed for hazard correction.  The Alliance signatory brands do not have any requirement to assist their suppliers with necessary funds.

In fact, today – three years after Rana Plaza – the brands are paying their suppliers in Bangladesh less per-unit-produced than they paid them at the time of the disaster.

Moreover, few clothing brands have offered long-term orders to their suppliers, so that factory owners will feel able to repay large bank loans with ongoing orders.  The “sweatshop business model” of short-term contracts at the lowest possible price remains in place and ever-dominant.

An international loan fund organized by the International Labor Organization and the World Bank has failed to provide the needed funding as well, according to a recent World Bank study.

Among the reasons for this failure are rampant corruption in the Bangladesh banking sector when funds they receive at 3-4% interest from the World Bank are offered to local factory owners at 10% or higher interest rates – and only offered to existing clients.

The third reason for delays in hazard correction is another aspect of the global supply chain sweatshop business model: the relentless search by transnational corporations to find the lowest production costs and highest profit rates, no matter the social and environmental impacts on the workers and countries involved.

Earlier this year, Rubana Huq, Managing Director of the Mohammadi Group, comprising of 8 garment factories in Bangladesh, spoke at the Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.  Ms. Huq reported that she has already been approached by clothing brands to continue being a supplier – but not with factories in Bangladesh, the brands wanted her company to set up and manage factories in East Africa where wages and compliance costs are even lower than Bangladesh.

How progress is made

It was the world-wide outcry and outrage following the industrial homicide of 1,100 people at Rana Plaza that forced 215+ international clothing brands to sign onto the Accord, and motivated the 26 US/Canadian brands to set up the competing Alliance, which has been forced to match the Accord in a “me-too” arrangement in many – but not all – aspects of hazard identification, hazard correction, worker participation and OHS and management assistance to factory owners.

Progress has been registered, and it should be appreciated.  More than 3,700 garment factories in Bangladesh producing for the international apparel market have had competent safety inspections and the results publicly posted on the internet. Many of the 150,000 identified hazards have been eliminated, and those that have not been fixed are now the source of a new public outcry.

This focus on worker health and safety, led by the Accord, is unprecedented for any global supply chain, in any country, and in any product sector. The example of a binding agreement between brands and worker representatives; independent, competent inspections; public reporting of the results; mandatory hazard correction; and worker participation and OHS training is one that could and should be replicated elsewhere in the global economy.

There is, of course, work to do.  As the report notes:

This partial progress is positive, because it makes factories at least somewhat safer. However, these brands did not promise in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse to make their supplier factories somewhat safer; they promised to make them safe – and that standard has been very clearly defined in time-bound action plans for each factory. (Emphasis in original.)

Part of the work needed to improve working conditions in Bangladesh is to keep holding the brands’ feet to the fire to meet the promises they made to garment workers in Bangladesh.  Part of the work needed is to demand a change of the dominant sweatshop business model of global supply chains.  Part of the work needed is replace the ineffective and corrupted “corporate social responsibility” monitoring with independent, competent auditing that is publicly reported and carries mandatory hazard corrections and involves meaningful worker participation.

A tall order, but the only way to effectively protect garment workers in Bangladesh, or in East Africa, or in New York City and Los Angeles.

Garrett Brown is a certified industrial hygienist who worked for Cal/OSHA for 20 years as a field Compliance officer and then served as Special Assistant to the Chief of the Division before retiring in 2014.  He has also been the volunteer Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network since 1993.  He has made five trips to Bangladesh to assist with worker safety projects since 2014.



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