Was your shirt or jeans stitched by one of the nearly 1,000 garment workers who were injured or killed in the recent factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh? You might want to check the label.
In the week since an eight-story, four-factory complex collapsed in Bangladesh, online records and physical debris revealed a growing list of international retailers tied to the suppliers housed in the Rana Plaza building. More than a dozen brands have been identified—including big names like The Children’s Place, Benetton, Mango, and Primark—and a number of these companies have emerged to explain their association with the shoddily built, illegal bloc that housed the factories.
In an assembly line with so many middlemen, who’s to blame? Garment workers, among the world’s worst paid and treated laborers, increasingly have fallen victim to unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh, where the $20 billion garment industry employs 3.2 million people. But in the finger pointing after every disaster, little progress is made to fix the issue, as companies often blame corrupt government inspectors or factory owners, who blame companies for the pressures of a rigorous supply schedule. In the wake of a string of deadly factory accidents, critics argue a stricter set of checks and balances must be implemented across the board—and taken out of the hands of international retailers.
“You’re the leader in the industry, and the industry’s been structured in a way that keeps responsibility at a distance from you and that’s not acceptable,” says Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), of the companies. She calls the current systems in place “woefully inadequate” and saying, “frankly, they don’t want responsibility for those workers.”
The Daily Beast contacted 11 international retailers whose names surfaced in connection to the factories, and two responded with comments by press time.
Department store JCPenney noted that while no company-label merchandise was produced at the factory, product slated for its stores was. “While JCPenney has no direct insight into the development and sourcing of Joe Fresh apparel, we will continue to be a part of a broader coalition that aims to improve the safe working conditions in Bangladesh,” a spokeswoman said in an email to The Daily Beast.
Some, including Benetton and Mango, have acknowledged using the factories but said they were not official suppliers and had not been fully audited. “A one-time order was completed and shipped out of one of the manufacturers involved several weeks prior to the accident,” Benetton said in a statement. “Since then, this subcontractor has been removed from our supplier list.”
According to activists, labels were found for French supermarket Carrefour and European retailer C&A, both of which deny current involvement with the suppliers. The Children’s Place and the Dress Barn said they were prior customers but hadn’t done business with the factories in years. And despite one of the factory websites claiming Walmart as a customer, the world’s largest retailer denies the association.
“We ask ourselves, how many more workers have to die for there to be a significant change?”
Others have been more forthcoming. Bonmarché, in the United Kingdom, confirmed it was working with one of the factories, telling The Daily Beast, the company has “a clear supplier code of conduct, in line with industry standards.” Both Loblaw Co., the Canadian retailer that owns Joe Fresh, and the U.K. clothing chain Primark announced they would dole out reparations to family members of the victims, including long-term provisions and immediate aid. “We are fully aware of our responsibility,” Primark said in a statement. “We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance.”
Notably, though, neither Loblaw nor Primark has agreed to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, a 2011 proposal drafted by the National Garment Workers’ Federation that would establish a system of independent factory inspectors. On Change.org, a petition urging retailers Primark, Mango, and Matalan to add their names to the agreement and supply worker compensation has garnered 60,000 signatures.
Jonathan Doh, director of the Center for Global Leadership at the Villanova School of Business, says that as supply chains grow become more fractured, it's necessary for for companies to deepen participation in these issues, past releasing corporate social responsibility reports and flashy advertising campaigns. As the rate of disasters increase, he notes the need for brands "to assume some responsibility for the working conditions in not just their own factories, but those of their suppliers and their suppliers' suppliers."
Though unrest over working conditions has been escalating over the past decade in Bangladesh, in the past six months fatal incidents have hit “record numbers,” says Gearhart. “It’s unfathomable that we could have ever gotten to this many worker deaths.”
In November, 112 garment workers were killed in a fire at Tazreen Fashions factory, where products were being made for Walmart and Sears. A year and a half earlier, Walmart shareholders had voted down requiring annual safety reports from suppliers, saying it “could ultimately lead to higher costs for Walmart and higher prices for our customers. This would not be in the best interests of Walmart’s shareholders and customers and would place Walmart at a competitive disadvantage.”
Twenty-four-year-old Sumi Abedin survived the November fire by jumping from a third-story window, breaking her arm and leg in the process. She recently traveled across the United States to speak out against the practices of big business. “I don’t want anyone else to have to live through a horrible fire like I experienced at Tazreen,” she said in a statement released by the ILRF. “I had to find my courage to take this trip to call on U.S. apparel companies and buyers to stop the murders in Bangladeshi garment factories before the death toll becomes any higher.”
As pressure mounts, petitions take off, and consumers boycott brands, Gearhart says she hopes the international supply chain will be encouraged—or shamed—into entering binding agreements for a comprehensive system of safety checks and balances. But that would require a complete revamping of “the level of commitment from the brands to factories and factories to workers,” and Gearhart isn’t entirely optimistic. Each time factory abuse is revealed in a tragedy, the world reacts—viscerally, furiously—but so far the outrage hasn’t been enough to stop the cycle. “We ask ourselves, how many more workers have to die for there to be a significant change?” she says.