17 Jun Reeling In The Chain: Garment Industry Supply Chain Woes
In April 2013, Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh, collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers and injuring at least 2,500. The accident was caused by cracks in the building, which were found the day before the accident. Ignoring the safety hazard, managers forced the workers to go back to work by threatening to withhold pay. In the aftermath of the accident, clothing from several major global brands was found on the premises, including Mango and Primark. The Rana accident has been called the worst garment factory accident in history.
Perhaps the most disturbing information about this incident is that it was not a first occurrence, nor an infrequent one. A few months before Rana happened, a fire broke out at a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed 112 people, and a few months before that, another fire happened in a garment factory in Pakistan left a death toll of approximately 300 people in its wake. What is more, the details of these accidents mirror almost exactly a fire that took place a little over one hundred years ago in New York City. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire claimed the lives of 146 garment workers who had been locked in by factory owners to prevent workers from taking breaks. The difference between the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the Rana Plaza disaster is that since the former took place, reforms were put in place to supposedly prevent such incidents from occurring. However, as evidenced by the large number of garment factory incidents that have taken place since then, there is still much work to be done.
Owing to the work of labor activists, there are numerous supply chain certifications and standards-setting organizations that are meant to assess and ensure safe working conditions for factory workers. These include the Fair Labor Association’s Workplace Code of Conduct and Social Accountability International’s SA8000 Certification. Such standards usually call for fire safety training, payment of at least a legal minimum wage, and decent working hours. Once retailers adopt these rules, monitoring is often put in place to ensure that the guidelines are followed. However, methods to circumvent these standards run rampant. Owners often lock doors and block stairwells to prevent workers from taking too many breaks, and because factory owners are often notified in advance when an audit will be conducted, they take steps to make sure they pass the audit, including instructing their workers on what to say during inspections and posting pictures of fire drills that took place only days before.
Despite the large number of factory accidents that have taken place, dangerous conditions continue to exist for various reasons. First, as seen above, owners routinely find ways to pass inspection. Secondly, in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, where the garment industry makes up a significant portion of the countries’ export business, critics accuse the government of being too soft on punishing negligent factory owners because of the income they generate. Also, because most of the owners come from wealthy families, they are able to wield their influence to evade repercussions. Additionally, factory subcontracting has become a big issue, as factories, desperate to fill large orders on a looming deadline at a low price to fashion companies, often use subcontractors to fill orders that they cannot. Many times, not only have these subcontractors not pledged to follow the same safety guidelines of the main contractor, but also companies are not aware that the work has been contracted out.
There has been much debate among workers’ rights advocates about how best to address these atrocities and prevent them from happening. They have demanded that governments act with more of an iron fist in prosecuting factory owners and that companies have more transparency in their supply chains. Since Rana, progress has been made. In May 2013, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was signed. The Accord is a legally binding agreement between labor unions and over 150 apparel companies from around the world whose main goal is to improve factory safety in Bangladesh, primarily through independent safety inspections and fire safety enforcement. Companies like Adidas, H&M, and Mango are signatories. The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, created in July 2013, is a similar binding agreement among 24 North American corporations. Because these agreements are legally binding, they are believed to be a display of actual progress for garment factory safety. Also, the United States suspended trade privileges for Bangladesh due to its flagrant history of worker safety violations. While these actions are unprecedented and a step in the right direction, much work remains to be done.
To do their part, fashion brands should be aware of the labor laws that exist in the countries where they manufacture their product and ensure that they are abiding by those laws. They should also adopt a set of monitoring guidelines and make sure they are enforced. While corporations are working on their supply chain monitoring, it is important that consumers do not forget the significance of the role that they, too, can play in promoting worker safety. The more consumers demand supply chain transparency and become aware of the human cost behind the clothing they buy, the more proactive that fashion companies will be in monitoring the factories they use.
Disclosure: This article is not legal advice. There are no attorney-client relationships formed by this article or any comments to this article.