Hope for Bangladesh: Fire Safety in the Garment Industry

Bangladeshi workers demonstrate the power of a newly installed on-site water pump. Photo: net Impact Central, courtesy of Marcus Chung.

 

On the heels of the most recent Bangladeshi factory fire, former Net Impact board member Marcus Chung shares his thoughts on a recent trip to Bangladesh, where he toured several garment factories. As Marcus says, “It’s unconscionable that any person should lose his or her life in the name of garment manufacturing.” Here, he describes why he is cautiously optimistic.

by Marcus Chung | Former Net Impact Board Member

From the moment you enter the Dhaka airport, it’s clear that the apparel industry is vital to Bangladesh’s economy. Airport walls are lined with huge posters advertising local garment manufacturers, textile mills, and trims suppliers. Apparel accounts for between 70 and 80 percent of the country’s exports, so it’s no surprise that almost everyone on my flight from Hong Kong to Dhaka declared their profession as “buyer” or “sourcing” when clearing through immigration.

I visited Dhaka on behalf of a client to get a better understanding of the CSR challenges, trends, and opportunities that large apparel brands face in sourcing from Bangladeshi garment factories. Following November 2012’s tragic Tazreen Fashions factory fire that claimed the lives of more than 100 workers, there is definitely renewed focus on how the industry can promote better factory working conditions. Tazreen was just the latest in a string of Bangladeshi garment factories that burned to the ground, but it also was the country’s most devastating in terms of the sheer multitude of lives lost.

Yet it makes economic sense for almost every Western mass-market apparel retailer to source from Bangladesh because you can get a solid product at a competitive price. The apparel industry cannot ignore a fundamental commercial reality: Bangladesh has a ready supply of very capable garment factories that are filled with inexpensive labor and it’s not realistic for companies to simply stop sourcing from Bangladesh. Therefore, the industry must do a better job of sourcing in a responsible manner that protects the rights of workers and includes basic commitments to a safe and healthy work environment.

A Multitude of Challenges

I’ve spent the past decade or so in the garment industry and over the years I’ve heard many hypotheses about why fire safety continues to challenge so many Bangladeshi factory managers. Some cite an ineffective, corrupt government that does not enforce its own building code regulations. Others believe factory middle managers, myopically focused on production output, lack the ability or understanding to support fire safety practices with workers.

Many believe pressure from Western brands to achieve low-cost goods encourages subversion of basic health and safety standards. I’ve heard people claim the root cause is a basic lack of infrastructure: old, multi-story buildings with poor electrical wiring; unreliable power supply (I cannot count the number of times the power went out during my visit) that causes short-circuits; and dusty, flammable materials lying dangerously close to unprotected electrical outlets. I spoke with one CSR leader who lamented a general lack of civil society and a culture where officials will agree to make improvements, but never follow through.

Signs of More Systemic Change

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