Viewpoint: Lessons must be learned from Bangladesh inferno
Since when did garment making become a matter of life and death? And why, despite the huge amounts of time, effort and resources that have gone into corporate social responsibility, factory inspections and audits, do poorly paid workers continue to toil in dangerous conditions supplying clothing to Western brands and retailers?
Whatever the answer, and there's no doubt it's a complicated one, it is now abundantly clear that current practices and procedures aren't working as they should.
Media attention this week has quite rightly focused on the devastating fire at Tazreen Fashion on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, where as many as 111 people lost their lives and 100 were injured as they tried to escape the burning building.
But another, less publicised event, also served to shed light on the disconnect that exists between fashion retailers and brands sourcing from Asia and the people making their clothes.
Speaking at a tribunal staged last week in the city of Bangalore to highlight the plight of workers in Indian garment factories, executives from Swedish fashion retailer H&M described their relationship with suppliers as "cat and mouse."
Not only do the two sides lack trust it seems, yet at the same time the onus is placed firmly on suppliers to maintain labour and other standards while workers toil to meet buyers' demands for fast turnaround and tight lead times.
The process of auditing, in which teams of up to 10 people visit a factory for 2-3 days, also means inspections are unlikely to be the "surprise" and "unannounced" events they would like, with factories invariably spruced up - and made safe, with emergency exits and stairways unlocked and unblocked - beforehand.
Workers at the tribunal also complained they are not being integrated in the inspection process, and often have to make testimonies in front of management.
As with the issue of fair or living wages, retailers and brands all too often defer fire safety to the line that it has to be tackled through collaboration between different parties - the customer, the supplier, local authorities, the government, trade unions and NGOs. So it's no wonder that little, if any progress is being made.
And surely no reputable firm can say, hand on heart, that an educational film to increase fire safety awareness among suppliers and their employees is the best they can do? And yet this is the contribution many are making in their attempt prevent serious fire accidents.
Worker rights groups have called on big-brand firms to sign up to a fire safety programme that addresses the root causes of fires.
They want to see independent and transparent inspections, an obligatory buildings upgrade, a review of all existing laws and safety regulations - and the payment of prices that can cover the costs involved. There also needs to be direct involvement from trade unions in worker training on health and safety, they say.
But with more than 700 apparel worker deaths in Bangladesh alone since 2006, and another 300 killed in two factory fires in Pakistan in September, the time for procrastination is surely over.
No loss of life should ever be acceptable in the global garment industry.
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