Lessons from Bangladesh: Worker Safety in the Global Supply Chain

October 23rd, 2013 by Julie Ferguson

Six months ago, the world was shocked by the collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory that resulted in the gruesome deaths of more than 1100 workers. This should have been a seminal moment in worker health and safety, sparking massive global reform in a troubled industry in much the same way that our own Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire launched U.S. worker protections. Did it? The October issue of EHS Today features an important overview of what has and hasn’t changed since the disaster: Bangladesh: The Tragedy of Valuing Production Over Safety in the Global Supply Chain. This excellent multi-part series focuses on safety progress — or lack of it — that has occurred in the Bangladesh garment industry since last April’s Rana Plaza factory collapse. From our point of view, it’s a series that deserves wide circulation.
The catastrophic event demonstrated a fundamental failure to protect workers and a serious failure in the global supply chain of highly popular retail brands: the Gap (including Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime and Athleta brands), Walmart, VF Corp. (Nautica, Wrangler, Timblerlan, Jansport and other brands), JC Penney and numerous others. The series paints a picture of willful disregard of unsafe conditions; managers pressured by contracts which included ruinous penalties for failure to meet unrelenting schedules; and impoverished workers facing the harsh reality of surviving paycheck to paycheck.
In the introductory article, Bangladesh: Is Worker Safety Failing in the Global Supply Chain?, editor Sandy Smith looks at the global involvement in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, which exported goods worth more than $20 billion in the past year, nearly a 12% growth over the prior year. There’s no secret why Bangladesh has experienced such growth: cost for labor is a paltry $37 per month, half the average wages in Cambodia and one-fifth the wages in China. Smith’s introductory piece summarizes the post-tragedy response by global retail behemoths. While most retailers have launched initiatives to increase worker safety, many of these efforts are fragmented and nonbinding and do not offer the overarching response or accountability that many experts believe necessary to successful change.
In Bangladesh: A New Contract for the Global Apparel Industry, Dara O’Rourke, an associate professor at the University of California-Berkeley and the co-founder of GoodGuide, offers a look at conditions that led to the disaster. He discusses the contrast between two responses to the tragedy. European brands and retailers responded to the Rana Plaza tragedy by signing onto the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Accord. The accord is the first binding agreement of its kind in Bangladesh; essentially a new type of contract requiring independent inspections and reports, mandatory repairs, and a real role for workers, among other things. The Accord offers a commitment to terminate factories that don’t improve.
In contrast, “U.S. brands and retailers refused to sign the accord, asserting that the legal commitments embedded in the accord – exactly what is needed – would cost too much and expose them to too great of legal liabilities. Instead, U.S. firms launched a voluntary initiative of their own, dubbed the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, which loosely commits U.S. brands and retailers to: work with the Bangladeshi government to develop factory-assessment protocols; inspect all of the factories they use; pay for training of managers and workers; create a loan fund for factories to borrow money to make improvements; and make their inspections transparent.
He notes that the most obvious limitation of the U.S.-led initiative is that it is non-binding.
In The Catastrophic Failure of the Apparel Industry’s Factory-Inspection Regimes and the Birth of a New Model, Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, examines systemic factors that led to recent catastrophes. He says the failures occurred not because apparel corporations were unaware of the dangers or didn’t understand the steps necessary to make factories safe; nor does he think the failures can be blamed on subcontractors, a popular excuse that allows the big-brand buyers to deflect responsibility. Rather, he points to a system more geared to protecting “brands” than people and perpetuating absolute minimum production costs at the expense of safety. He notes that “As long as the safety crisis in Bangladesh did not generate highly extended and highly damaging media coverage – and it did not, until recently – most brands and retailers were content to utilize inspection regimes that, while ineffective at their official task, offered [the following] attractive features.”
In CSR Audits Fail to Protect Workers and Threaten OSH Profession’s Integrity, Garret Brown, MPH, CIH, a compliance officer with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, looks at the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives and offers a detailed look into the failure of the existing audit systems. He notes that CSR auditing has become an $80 billion dollar business in its own right, raising questions about whether the purpose is audits or revenue generation. Certainly, something isn’t working: “The workplaces at both recent Bangladeshi disaster incidents – Rana Plaza, where 1,129 workers died in the building collapse in April and Tazreen Fashion, where 112 workers burned to death last November -repeatedly had “passed” audits by the brands and third-party monitors.”
For further background on CSR, see his 2007 article on Corporate Social Responsibility and workplace safety in global supply chains for further background.
In Bangladesh: Rebeka: Survival from Death Trap , Repon Chowdhury and Taherul Islam of the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation examine the personal toll and human side of this tragedy through the story of Rebeka, a 20 year old survivor of the Rana Plaza building collapse.