Bangladesh is far from being the only emerging market outsourcer that has had problems with factory safety and auditing. Elsewhere in Asia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and especially Cambodia have had their own challenges.

Indeed Cambodia has been wracked by industrial disputes over working conditions in its textile and clothing sector. The country's garment industry has been trying to improve its reputation for fair working conditions, in part due to the presence of Better Factories Cambodia - an International Labour Organization (ILO) programme that independently monitors factories.

However, the last year has been a tumultuous one for the industry. Shortly after the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, two garment and shoe factory collapses in Cambodia left three dead and dozens injured.

A Better Factories Cambodia survey in July 2013 concluded that "improvements are not being made in many areas including fire safety, child labour, and worker safety and health." The report warned that: "Cambodia's industry runs the risk of forfeiting the advantages that come from its reputation for decent working conditions."

In response, the organisation announced it would begin publicly disclosing factory compliance information with safety standards. The group's first online transparency database was launched in March [2014], and has already seen an increase in compliance as a result.

"We've just begun the transparency programme, but we are happy to see there are changes in the Critical Issue category," said Tivea Koam, an ILO spokesperson, who was referring to core labour issues such as drinking water, needle guards and an absence of forced labour.

"For example, factories conducting emergency evacuation drills rose from 55% to 77% and proper payment of seniority-related benefits increased from 71% to 94%.

In addition, a lot of other factories have been working to improve their factories in anticipation of inclusion in the next report. These changes are good for workers and the industry's reputation, but the second report - due out in June - will tell us if it's a trend. We hope so." 

Uneven progress in Pakistan
There is also uneven progress in Pakistan. While demands and promises were made to improve and implement safety regulations and industry standards in Pakistan's garment industry following a September 2012 factory fire in Karachi that killed 258 workers, little has been done in practical terms to prevent such tragedies.

Speaking to just-style, Mohammad Jawed Bilwani, chairman of the Pakistan Apparel Forum, regretted that there was much talk and little action by the government to rectify the situation.

"After the Karachi incident, we demanded stricter safety regulations and improved fire-fighting services. A number of meetings were held, but nothing concrete came out of the discussions," he said.

According to Bilwani, the owners of many garment factories invested in improving fire safety measures under their own initiative, but there was still scope for improvements.

"The factories had to meet compliance standards", he said, noting these are increasingly set by importers placing export orders with Pakistani firms. "In the process, our systems in certain cases have become better than those in developed countries," he claimed.

Industry experts in Pakistan have long been arguing that lax labour laws, a culture of corruption and the tendency to cut corners to secure bigger profits continues to plague the industry.

The West Pakistan Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963, authorised under the pre-independence Factories Act 1934, is the only comprehensive Pakistan legislation on factory health and safety.

That said, Pakistan, as a signatory to the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Labour Inspection Convention, is required to ensure safe working conditions for workers. Implementation of even these old laws is a perennial problem, particularly in the textile industry, which employs 38% of the country's manufacturing workforce.

Sri Lanka's reputation
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's sector is trying to capitalise on a better established for safety and meeting international standards, said Tuli Cooray, secretary general of the country's Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF).

He claimed to just-style: "In comparison to almost all countries across the region, our industry safety standards are far superior and as of now we do not need to enhance our safety standards at a manufacturing plant level and employee level...It is a fashion in Sri Lanka to be compliant with internationally accepted safety standards."

Cooray cited compliance with national laws, which demand safe and healthy working conditions, environmental protection standards and acceptable hours of work. These are long established, dating back in some instances before its 1948 independence.

Sri Lanka's Shop and Office Employees Act No 19 of 1954 limits a normal day's working hours to eight hours and 45 hours for a week. The legislation also bans child labour across all sectors, including the garment industry, while the Factories Ordinance (No 45 of 1942) says all factories should maintain a safe and a healthy work environment.

Sri Lanka has also ratified the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951, of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

"Our industry supports international best practices and we adhere to them very strictly. This is a requirement for us as we get a significant amount of foreign direct investments in the country and adhering to safety standards are accepted of us," Cooray added.

Despite this, he accepted the industry is still looking to improve its energy efficiency performance.

Strengthened safety measures
Leading Sri Lankan apparel manufacturing companies such as Hirdaramani Group also continue to strengthen safety measures across their factories.

According to Arjuna Kuruppu, the company's director of social compliance and environment sustainability, "the Hirdaramani Group has taken several steps across all its facilities to enhance the fire safety standard in order to mitigate fire risks. Large investments, too, have been made in infrastructure upgrade and on certain fire preventive measures."

Accordingly, smoke detectors, centralised fire alarm systems, fire hose reels, fire hydrant systems, emergency exit doors with push bars, together with additional emergency exits and emergency lights are being installed across all the company's factories, with the work expected to be completed in May.

Kuruppu also noted that the factories tightly restrict smoking, and conduct regular safety awareness programmes for senior and junior staff. New recruits receive specialised fire prevention and response training during their induction.

Meanwhile, in February this year, UK-based Intertek - which provides quality and safety services including auditing and testing - opened a textile and apparel testing laboratory in Sri Lanka.

Intertek aims to use the facility to help the local apparel industry ensure its products and manufacturing meet international safety, regulatory, quality and performance standards required by importers.

Sri Lanka is also noteworthy for promoting its industry as a 'garments without guilt' sector, focusing on ethical manufacturing and sustainable development, promoting the industry's commitment to ethical working conditions: free of child labour, forced labour, discrimination and sweatshop practices.

And while words are not actions, making public promises of this kind will always encourage better practice, for fear of the marketing blow-back if companies fail to comply.

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With additional reporting by Rahimullah Yusufzai, and Tom Maresca.