The latest disaster to hit factory workers in Bangladesh has put the UK fashion sector’s supply policies back in the spotlight.
Last week saw yet another tragedy strike those at the bottom of the fashion food chain, as more than 400 factory workers in Bangladesh were killed and another 2,500 injured after the Rana Plaza factory they were working in collapsed.
Many of the workers - mostly women - were trapped in the wreckage for hours while reports showed family members searching desperately for their loved ones. Among the rubble were labels from high street staples Primark and Mango.
Reports later surfaced that the factory owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, had told employees to return to the building after it had been evacuated when cracks appeared the day before. While bodies were still being pulled from the rubble days later, workers began rioting. Rana has now been arrested and faces seven years in prison.
Mango moved to distance itself from the “unfortunate accident”, saying the items being produced there were just samples and that the manufacturer was “not an official supplier”.
Primark issued an initial statement saying it was “shocked and deeply saddened”, and that it would push for a review of building integrity as part of a wider examination of working practices in the region.
It later committed to paying out compensation for victims and their families and urged others to do the same.
Bonmarché, which had previously used the factory, said it was gathering information “to make an informed decision” about its next step.
Campaign groups claim the disaster - which came just five months after a fire in another Bangladesh factory killed 112 workers - shows just how much more must be done to ensure the fashion industry meets its ethical responsibilities.
John Hilary of campaign group War on Want says audits - routinely deployed throughout the sector - “have been shown to be a complete failure”. Workers are coached on what to say, he claims, while inspections don’t go deep enough into the business to gauge conditions.
And there is the suggestion retailers are complicit in going along with flawed checks. One textiles supplier, whose Italian and Chinese-made fabrics are shipped to places such as Bangladesh for high street retailers, claims big businesses “turn a blind eye” to conditions there.
“They all have checks, but the fact is they could be dealing with someone who has a showpiece factory where everything is wonderful and, down the road, there are seven or eight factories just like the one that collapsed or the one that burnt down [in November],” he says.
“It’s hard to prove whether the retailer knows what’s going on, but the reality is the buyers do know - everyone knows. How else could they retail clothes at that price?”
Sam Maher of workers’ rights campaign group Labour Behind The Label agrees more must be done.
“Everyone knows that most of the factories in Bangladesh are death traps. Someone needs to take responsibility for improvements, and retailers are the ones taking the biggest profit out of the whole chain,” she says.
“We want to see retailers commit to improvements over the long term.”
Both Labour Behind the Label and War on Want are calling on retailers to sign up to a set of rules - the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement - to prevent similar incidents. As Drapers went to press, only PVH - parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger - and German retailer Tchibo had committed.
Campaigners say this is particularly important in Bangladesh, because the speed at which the garment industry has grown - estimates now put the annual value at $19bn (£12.25bn) - mean factories are being built quickly to meet demand from Western retailers.
Maher acknowledges it will involve investment from UK firms but insists it will benefit them. “This [factory collapse]is a disaster for companies like Primark, not just because of the horrendous loss of life, but because they will forever be associated with images of women dragged out of rubble,” she says.
The cheaper alternative would perhaps be to move out of Bangladesh altogether, but Maher insists this is not the solution as it would only harm the workers - as would boycotting value chains altogether.
Instead, campaign groups have tried to engage with retailers on this matter for several years but it is a slow process. British businesses in particular are wary of too much transparency, Maher says.
They also hold out by saying they want the involvement of the Bangladesh government, but Maher claims many politicians are involved in the garment industry and are too “self-interested” to bring about change.
“That is not a legitimate argument for not doing anything,” she tells Drapers. “Signing up to the agreement would
put pressure on the government - they don’t want to lose the business, so if the likes of Tesco, Primark and Marks & Spencer said ‘do this or we leave’, the government would have no choice.”
Maher also believes retailers wanting to “move suppliers at the click of a button” is part of the problem. “The fashion industry could be good for people in Bangladesh. If everyone put the investment in that is needed, the industry could really alleviate poverty.”
Hilary, meanwhile, argues that responsibility lies in the hands of UK law makers, who could prevent retailers from simply upping sticks and moving to a new frontier land without regulations.
“The government at this end has as much responsibility as Bangladesh’s to ensure clothes being bought in the UK were made in safe conditions,” he says.
Indeed, as Drapers went to press, EU representatives issued a statement saying they were mulling “appropriate action [to] incentivise responsible management of supply chains involving developing countries”.
Beyond the statements that were issued, no retailers would discuss the tragedy or the wider implications of their responsibility towards those who work further down the supply chain.
Those implicated in this tragedy have still yet to sign the building safety agreement, while Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which was among those using the factory that caught fire last year, has not signed and made no comment.
However, Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium insists the sector recognises this “very high responsibility for standards”. “The structural integrity of buildings has always been the responsibility of building owners, local inspectors and enforcers - it’s not something the audits have examined - but clearly now there’s a question over whether that should change,” he says.
“UK retailers are driving standards up in the countries they deal with - they are good for those countries’ economies, and good for people who work for them.”
Members are now discussing “what needs to happen”, including updating the Ethical Trading Initiative, which many have signed previously. But change still sounds far off.
“The extent to which it’s feasible for retailers to have audits of factories that supply them in that kind of detail is a big question,” says Dodd. “It’s too soon to say what’s realistic and what will change.”
Story in numbers
41 Factory fires and nine deaths since the Tazreen Fashions blaze killed 112 in November
£12.2bn Value of the garment industry in Bangladesh
£24.50 Standard monthly pay for a Bangladeshi factory worker
$19m Estimated cost of compensation, according to Labour Behind the Label
4,000 Garment factories in Bangladesh