Printed on: May 01, 2013

Brands rejected factory safety plan


DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) -- As Bangladesh reels from the deaths of hundreds of garment workers in a building collapse, the refusal of global retailers to pay for strict nationwide factory inspections is bringing renewed scrutiny to an industry that has profited from a country notorious for its hazardous workplaces and subsistence-level wages.

After a factory fire killed 112 garment workers in November, clothing brands and retailers continued to reject a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry. Instead, companies expanded a patchwork system of private audits and training that labor groups say improves very little in a country where official inspections are lax and factory owners have close relations with the government.

In the meantime, threats to workers persist. In the five months since last year's deadly blaze at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., there were 41 other "fire incidents" in Bangladesh factories -- ranging from a deadly blaze to smaller fires or sparks that caused employees to panic, according to a labor organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO umbrella group of American unions. Combined, the recent incidents killed nine workers and injured more than 660.

The April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed more than 300 people is the worst disaster to hit Bangladesh's fast-growing and politically powerful garment industry. For those attempting to overhaul conditions for workers who are paid as little as $38 a month, it is a grim reminder that corporate social responsibility programs are failing.

"Improvement is not happening," said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, who said a total of 600 workers have died in factory accidents in the last decade. "The multinational companies claim a lot of things. They claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system," Amin said. "But yet these things keep happening."