Bangladesh garment industry

Put work safety before profits

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 10:05am

Ever since a garment factory fire in November that killed nearly 120 people, pressure has mounted on Western companies to ensure the safety of Bangladeshi factories that make the goods they sell. A couple of firms endorsed a plan for Western retailers to finance structural and fire safety improvements - but only if rivals came on board. And this month Wal-Mart pledged nearly US$2 million to set up a fire-safety training institute for 2,000 factory managers.

It was too little, too late to prevent this week's building collapse from claiming hundreds of lives in a factory complex where about 3,000 were employed.

Two industrial disasters within six months raise questions about management practices and safety standards at the base of a global supply chain. Horrified reactions and expressions of condolence from numerous Western clothing retailers and supply-chain firms which acknowledge having used factories in the building cannot absolve them from a share of the blame.

Outsourcing of manufacturing to Asia may have resulted in bargains to which Western consumers have become addicted. But they did not bargain for sweated labour and unsafe working conditions akin to the work-house horrors of the Industrial Revolution.

True, the immediate fault for the collapse is to be found in local greed and corruption. The owner of the building used political position and influence to get around safety regulations that should have prevented him from adding floors to premises rented out to factories making goods for cut-price retailers. But neglect of structural and fire safety to achieve cost savings can be partly blamed on pressure from US and European retailers for low prices and on-time delivery. In this case, even after the building was evacuated when structural cracks appeared, managers forced workers to return.

If big retailers choose to source from a country known for such abuse of work safety and exploitation, they must accept a share of responsibility. They may make factory inspections and impose contract conditions to meet criticism from workplace activists, but these count for little if laws are flouted with impunity.

Western brands operating on thin margins that source from the cheapest manufacturing bases have an obligation to put safety first. Otherwise Western consumers may also weigh the human price of the shirt on their back.