Over the weekend there was a tragic garment factory fire in Bangladesh, which killed seven people. It’s the second deadly factory fire in the region in just two months, after another factory fire claimed the lives of over 110 people in November. Since then, there’s been a general call to action: Human rights groups have increased their demands for global reform, governments are considering putting tighter restrictions on overseas manufacturers, and retailers are rethinking how they approach manufacturing.
The recent blaze occurred in the Smart Garment Export factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh–it was a business that didn’t have permits or safety equipment; employees there at the time of the fire said fire exits were locked, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Two clothing labels, Bershka and Lefties, were found at the burned-out factory. Those labels are owned by Inditex SA, the company that also owns Zara. Inditex has adamantly denied that they knowingly did business with Smart, instead blaming suppliers (who they’ve now suspended) for illegally subcontracting business out to the Smart factory, according to WWD.
Illegal subcontracting is not uncommon in the area: The November blaze that killed over 110 people occurred at the Tazreen factory, which was reported to have produced goods for Wal-Mart–though the retailer claimed it was without their knowledge and through illegal subcontracting with one of their supplies. Wal-Mart has since unveiled a “zero tolerance” policy to subcontracting, which will go into effect March 1. If suppliers subcontract any work without disclosing it to Wal-Mart, they’ll be dropped by the discount retailer.
WWD is reporting that retailers who manufacture abroad are also considering using outside managers–not supervisors hired by the factory–to oversee the safety of overseas garment factories. “You can’t employ local managers because they get too close to factory management, so we bring in foreigners,” Richard Leeds, the chairman of Richard Leeds Intl., told the trade.
The US government is also getting involved. A group of House lawmakers is pressuring the U.S. Trade Representative to complete its review of Bangladesh’s compliance with labor eligibility requirements under the Generalized System of Preferences, a program which gives duty-free trade benefits to some of the world’s poorest countries. The office of the US Trade Representative is considering suspending Bangladesh’s duty-free benefits until the labor conditions improve there/ Human rights groups are asking the European Union to do the same–many of the labels found at recent fires are from European companies.
While these policies by retailers and government are a good start, some human rights’ organizations don’t think it’s nearly enough. Charles Kernaghan, the executive director for the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights told WWD, “[The EU] should send a significant delegation to Bangladesh to inform the government that in order to keep up this collaboration, workers need to have the basic internationally recognized labor standards. All they have done is talk for the last 20 years and nothing has changed.”
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, thinks that retailers need to really step it up too. The Consortium is asking retailers to voluntarily sign the “Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.” So far PVH Corp., whose brands include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, IZOD and others, and German retailer Tchibo have signed on.
The Consortium basically wants to see an overhaul of factories. “When there is a fire or an embarrassment, brands and retailers do whatever they have to do to weather that particular storm and then they move forward with business as usual,” Nova told the trade. “That is why we’ve asked brands and retailers to sign an enforceable agreement that will compel them to undertake the fundamental reforms in their supply chains in Bangladesh that are necessary to make these factories minimally safe.”
It’s going to be an uphill battle. Mikail Shiper, an official in the Bangladesh Labor Ministry told the WSJ, “The Labor Ministry has only 16 inspectors to monitor upward of 5,000 factories.”
It’s a complicated issue that needs a resolution soon. No more humans should lose their lives in the interest of providing fast fashion for the first world.