The good factories should help raise the bar on industry-wide compliance

The good factories should help raise the bar on industry-wide compliance

Turning the issue of compliance on its head, David Birnbaum believes that responsibility for improving working conditions and raising the garment export industry to higher level lies with the better factories, both in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

If we truly hope to avoid a repetition of recent events in Bangladesh, and to avoid repeating the horrific events of Bangladesh elsewhere, we in the industry must scrap the current system of compliance and permit another to take its place.

As a first step, we must stop lying to ourselves and to the rest of the world. We must accept that compliance is not an exercise in customer public relations. 

We begin with the customers - retailers, brands and importers - because much of the problem lies with customers that over 20 years ago voluntarily assumed responsibility to ensure that their suppliers were in compliance.

  • The customers invented compliance;
  • The customers created the standards of compliance;
  • The customers employed the auditors to ensure that factories are compliant.

Most of us do not need a fire, or a building to fall on our heads, before admitting that we have a problem. Yet when disaster struck, the customers collectively washed their hands, abjuring any and all responsibility.

We are rightfully appalled that not a single Bangladeshi owner has been charged, much less convicted, for their failure to prevent these disasters. However, we should be equally appalled that not a single customer sourcing or compliance executive has lost his or her job for their failure to prevent the same disasters. 

If we are to avoid future Tazreens and Rana Plazas, the first step is to get the customers out of the compliance business. They are unqualified and, worse, have serious conflicts of interest.

Every customer wants to buy cheap goods from Bangladesh; they just do not want to pay the price. In fact many customers, particularly in the US, are beginning to recognise that they no longer want to be in the compliance business, where ethical responsibility may lead directly to legal liability.  

Once the customers leave, we can begin to look to establishing a new global reality-based compliance paradigm. The first step is to recognise the parameters.

  • Compliance is not a country or government issue 
    We cannot have a global standard of compliance when each country enacts its own individual legal standard. In some cases local laws, such as minimum age, are unacceptable to customers. In other cases local laws, such as severance and overtime regulations, are far stricter than customers' standards and more often than not honoured in the breach by local factories. It is not the job of the industry to ensure that factories abide by local laws. No-one expects the compliance auditors to ensure that the factories pay their local taxes. The role of the auditor is to ensure that factories meet global compliance standards.
  • Compliance is not a national industry issue
    Every country is home to both good and bad factories. We should not attack Vietnam's garment industry because some-state owned enterprises use forced labour anymore than we should attack the US garment industry because some factories in New York and Los Angeles operate at compliance levels more common to Dhaka and Chittagong.
  • Compliance must be recognised as factory issue
    Countries that are home to some of the world's most corrupt governments, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, are also home to many factories that act responsibly and with a high level of compliance. 

A factory's compliance is irrelevant to its location. No more free passes to Bangladesh based suppliers.

A factory's compliance is irrelevant to its customer base. We must accept the fact that to some customers compliance is of little or no importance. No more free passes to the outlaw customers.

The impending crisis
Because current programmes make no effort to remedy the flawed and corrupt current system of compliance, they will fail. EU and US remedial programmes will not put an end to the string of disasters. There will be more Tazreen fires; more Rana Plaza building collapses; more government efforts to put an end to demonstrations with teargas and guns.

Eventually, things will fall apart. Customers will leave, taking their orders with them; leaving the workers and the better factories to suffer the consequences of their failed strategy.

The only viable solution is for the good factories to disassociate themselves from the bad factories. Also, they must be seen to separate themselves from the government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).

They must initiate a new, totally independent and manifestly credible compliance system and standard; one that does not rely on the government, BGMEA, the customers, or the even the factories themselves. 

This is not difficult task.

The first and most difficult task is for the good factories to recognise they have no viable alternative.