Tragedy Strikes Again as Workers Die in Garment Factory Fire

Discussion
Jan 29, 2013

We’ve seen this before. A garment factory churning out fast fashion clothing for retailers in the West catches on fire and workers lose their lives.

The most recent case occurred in Bangladesh at a factory that appears to have been making clothing for Inditex, the parent of Zara. At least six people, according to reports, lost their lives in the fire that happened last weekend. It follows another blaze in Bangladesh in November where 112 workers lost their lives.

The question becomes whether the demands placed on suppliers are forcing them to cut corners and put workers in harm’s way.

"If they don’t get the products to the customers on time, at quality and in the specifications they want, customers will switch to a competitor," Richard Locke, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, told Bloomberg News. "At the same time, brands and large retailers need to be careful about reputational risks associated with poor working and safety conditions."

In some cases, as in the fire in November, factories hired to produce goods for Western brands and retailers farm out work to make deadlines. While companies here have claimed to have no knowledge of such activity, that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility, according to workers’ rights advocates.

"They cannot just clean their hands and say they didn’t know," Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told The Wall Street Journal after the fire last year. "It doesn’t make any sense, unless they are totally irresponsible about their codes of conduct or their inspection practices."

Are Western brands and retailers putting factory managers in the position of having to cut corners when it comes to safety in their facilities? What responsibility do retailers in the U.S. have for the working conditions of factory employees who produce goods for them?

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10 Comments on "Tragedy Strikes Again as Workers Die in Garment Factory Fire"

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David Livingston
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

Oh I’m sure retailers are putting factory managers in a position of having to cut corners. However, retailers in the US have little control over working conditions. Just like a retailer in Bangladesh would have no control on products from the USA that they sell.

We in the USA would never blame a foreign consumer when we have work site accidents like oil spills or a collapsed coal mine. The blame gets spread around, but I don’t recall we have ever blamed the purchaser of those goods and commodities. Those in charge of enforcing the zoning laws and regulations in the Bangladesh government along with the factory managers are to blame. This is just another case of someone looking for a scapegoat with money.

Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

Nobody is “forcing” the factory managers to ‘cut corners and put workers in harm’s way’. That’s a decision of the factory manager, although the pressure on many levels has to be enormous.

It would behoove U.S. companies to have a voluntary code of conduct, much like ‘fair trade’, and ‘sustainability’, and publicize it, but obviously not all companies would join in. And you couldn’t pass a law in this country, given the state of Congress, on much of anything. So my best answer is a voluntary program. I’ll be interested to see what others suggest.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust
There is pressure on all manufacturers in foreign countries today, as corporations will squeeze any savings they can, without fear of the regulations we must follow in the USA. If Bangladesh cannot produce it quickly, some other lower wage place will, and the vicious cycle continues to make us look bad as greedy capitalists. There needs to be a balance of respecting workers who produce these goods, and the corporations who benefit from them, but I don’t see much change in the way business is done overseas anytime soon. If we as a nation ever want to manufacture goods again, I think the opportunity has never been better to create a new Industrial Revolution right here in the good old USA. There are some great ideas on how to do this—and I have some myself—BUT until Washington DC gets its head out of its ***, than nothing will come of it. Unleash the talent we have to produce the finest goods at a fair market price, and watch the results, as Americans today would respond by purchasing American made goods in droves. Are there problems? Absolutely, but there are also common sense (there I go again) solutions to this issue.… Read more »
Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
4 years 9 months ago

The West wants goods at low prices. The East wants to provide them. In between is ever-present jeopardy caused by cutting corners.

The buyers responsibility should be to require that the seller provide written documentation that working conditions are within prescribed safety limits. The factory managers may not adhere to such promises since “price”—and different cultures—will still be the driving forces in such relationships. But it will modify the buyers’ responsibility for possible future disasters, at least to some extent. Unfortunately, tragedies will still likely persist.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
4 years 9 months ago
Garment manufacturing follows labor costs. China became the worlds manufacturer because they had the lowest labor costs; they had the worlds lowest labor costs because they had one of the worlds lowest standards of living and few environmental, factory or compliance regulations. Over time, both retailer initiated ethical sourcing requirements for manufacturers and governmental regulations increased the cost of manufacturing goods in China. Garment manufacturing costs come mostly from labor, so as China’s cost to manufacture increased, the production of garments moved to places like Bangladesh, where minimal regulations existed and the whole process starts all over again. This is a complicated issue that transcends the “greedy retailer” accusations which have typically been the focus. Most of the large retailers that I am familiar with have extensive ethical compliance programs that are designed to minimize the opportunity for factory’s to “cut corners,” but even such programs must rely upon the honesty and accurateness of both the manufacturers, their agents and associates to properly monitor and enforce these standards. Lastly, it is a very fair question to ask where the host countries’ governments are in enforcing existing laws or passing new laws that protect their workers and ensure a safe working… Read more »
Roger Saunders
BrainTrust

Global retailers establish standards for manufacturers/suppliers. This creates jobs, opportunity, grows a local economy, and brings higher safety standards to cities and villages in developing countries.

Global retailers systematically inspect these suppliers via audits on a regular basis. The local suppliers who do not comply are dismissed, or competitors are used.

Global retailers are conscious of their brand and trustworthy reputation, as well as the quality of life of human beings involved in their supply chain.

Global brands send audit teams to these suppliers’ base of business, as well as encourage the suppliers to visit and train their personnel about best practices.

Retailers are not attempting to ” . . . just clean their hands and say they didn’t know.” The Kalpona Akter and Worker Solidarity party would do well to work with their own politicians to shine a light on poor performing suppliers in their country.

Consumption is an app that has helped the world prosper and grow. Retailers have done a strong job of letting suppliers know of the quality and safety codes of conduct that they have established.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

I have my doubts whether or not we can do anything, oversight in place or not, to prevent accidents. Yes, these are tragic, but the off-shore manufacturers have the greatest responsibility for safety issues.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

David perhaps doesn’t remember the efforts over the years of the “Just-Say-No” crowd to (try to) blame users for the violence in the drug trade; the theory being, of course, that without demand, none of those problems would occur. There’s a certain logic in that—and a certain inconsistency as well—but unlike a good buzz, it’s not possible to say no to clothing. And even if suppliers were to set minimum standards, how could we be sure they were enforced?

Still, just as Walmart has done, I expect we’ll see more efforts at voluntary compliance, ineffectual though it might be. It’s hard to defend buying an item whose cost can only be met by paying someone 12 cents/hr.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

No. This is a reflection of the business and ethical climate of the country the work is produced in. Change this and everything else will follow suit.

Diana McHenry
Guest

Companies and people “vote” by how we spend our money globally. If goods are produced in the US in the same working conditions and these conditions were shown on the evening news, would we still buy the goods?

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