The Horror of Bangladesh Factory Collapse Reveals Impotence of CSR Compliance Inspections

International Labor Organizing

New Orleans   The death count has now passed 340 workers in the horrific collapse of the 8-story garment factory in Bangladesh.  Buried as well in the latest story in the Times is the understated indictment of another hollow and ineffective outside inspection of these garment plants as part of corporate social responsibility monitoring agreements that many consumers in the US and Europe have come to rely on to assuage their reservations in buying such clothes and trying to refuse to support sweatshop conditions.  As some will remember, the well known US-based monitoring group, Social Accountability International, was implicated in the tragic garment fire in Bangladesh last year, having earlier certified that company.  There seems no way to pretend that the best and best intentioned of these efforts are simply whitewashes for the corporations and very pure substitutes for strong governmental actions by the exporting and importing countries that cannot be swayed by the fees from the companies themselves. 

            Workers went on the rampage in Bangladesh in anger at the deaths with thousands on the streets, setting fire to two factories.  Government officials described the negligence as murder.  Meanwhile the names of JC Penny and others emerged in the debris and European monitors were left explaining how narrow and ineffective their certification efforts are. 

            The end of the Times’ article is worth careful reading:

Labor groups in the United States on Friday distributed photos showing that they had discovered garments with labels from J. C. Penney and El Corte Inglés, the Spanish retailer, at the site of the collapse. Seeking to press American retailers to do more to assure factory safety in Bangladesh, dozens of worker advocates held protests on Thursday at the Gap’s headquarters in San Francisco and at a Walmart store in Renton, Wash.   A leading factory monitoring group, the Business Social Compliance Initiative, which is based in Brussels, said that two of the factories in the building — New Waves Style and Phantom Apparel — were inspected and had complied with the group’s code of conduct.   Another factory in the building, Ether Tex, said on its Web site that it had passed an inspection by a monitoring group in Düsseldorf, Germany, the Service Organization for Compliance Audit Management. The Web site said Ether Tex was being evaluated by the Business Social Compliance Initiative.

Officials from such monitoring groups say they generally focus on internal matters, like smoke detectors and whether exit doors are locked, and not on matters like fire escapes or the soundness of a building’s structure, which are normally the responsibility of government inspectors.  Labor activists and human rights groups called on retailers and global brands to help pay for programs to improve factory safety and upgrade fire prevention equipment, a need underscored by a November fire that killed 112 workers. Activists say that spending about $600 million a year for five years could bankroll sweeping improvements to the country’s 5,000 garment factories — noting that global brands could finance such a program by agreeing to pay an additional 10 cents per garment for the more than six billion articles of clothing exported each year.

            Only a dime?  How can we not insist that this be done?

Audio Blog of Monitoring Bangladesh