"Room for Debate: The Human Cost of Cheap Clothing" (New York Times, Dec 2012)

The New York Times invited eight experts on globalisation, trade, workers' rights, business & human rights and corporate responsibility, to comment on "The Human Cost of Cheap Clothing" and issues of workplace safety in global supply chains in December 2012.  The Times' introduction:
"Recent factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh have killed more than 400 people. Yet, the stricken garment manufacturers had apparently passed inspection — despite bars on windows and locked exits — and been deemed safe.  These factories supply clothing to — and are in business because of — American companies like Wal-Mart and Sears. So where does the responsibility lie in improving worker safety, and what can be done about it?"

Below are excerpts fo the experts' contributions, with links to their full entries:

Company’s supply chains have now gone global, often managing more than 100,000 foreign suppliers on any given day. They source from developing countries, many of whom have lax --i f they exist at all -- government standards and regulations and an inability to enforce rules. In terms of gross domestic product, companies have now surpassed some countries when it comes to power and revenue. Western consumers demand more and more goods at lower and lower costs. Many keep up constantly with changing styles and trends, which in turn requires companies to place more and more pressure on their supply chains to keeps costs low, quality high and production on time.

However the expectations that companies operate in society’s best interest has never been higher. 

There are real business costs to the company when workers die and factories are shut down, not to mention blows to its reputation.

It is simply unacceptable that many corporations respond to these tragedies with passive statements along the lines of “We were unaware.” Companies like Nike and Apple have learned this in spades, and as such, have improved both their safety guidelines and made their supply chains more transparent.

Indeed, the only responsible answer to a tragedy like the recent fire at Tazreen Fashions in Bangladesh is “We should have been aware, we are sympathetic to the loss of life, and here is our plan to mitigate such disaster moving forward.”

Earlier this fall Gap, Inc. introduced such a plan, its Four-Part Fire Safety Action Plan.

Responding early, accepting responsibly, developing an action plan and urging industry collaboration is the only way that companies will escape further loss of life and accidents in their supply chai

 

 

 


David Schilling, Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility

David Schilling is Senior Program Director - Human Rights & Resources at ICCR.

"A Bottom-Up, Top-Down Approach"

"The deadly fire in the Tazreen Fashions [part of Tuba Group] factory has created a sense of alarm across a range of sectors both within Bangladesh and among U.S. and European retailers and brands. Will this alarm be sustained long enough to incite meaningful change? Tragically, these human rights violations are all too common for a variety of reasons, chief among them, poor government oversight...trade unions, collective bargaining and worker advocacy are not encouraged, but rather suppressed.  What role does the apparel industry have in preventing future fires and upholding the human rights of factory workers?...The bottom-up approach should include:
• The formation of worker health and safety committees.
• Empowered trade unions that implement effective fire prevention programs.
• Capacity building of workers and managers to proactively remediate issues.
The top-down strategy should require suppliers to implement:
• Basic fire safety infrastructure renovation
• Regular fire safety trainings
• Independent, transparent factory inspections
...[Because] the apparel industry has become exceedingly price sensitive, the protection of human rights, including workplace safety in low wage countries like Bangladesh, remains a secondary priority. Until the day that workplace risks are factored into apparel price analyses, devastating factory fires like the one in Tazreen will remain a threat."

Full entry

 

 


Jagdish Bhagwati, Professor of Economics, Columbia University

"Blame Bangladesh, Not the Brands"

"The Bangladesh fires emphasize again a lax and lackadaisical attitude to the issue of workplace safety by the Bangladeshi authorities, possibly aided and abetted by domestic politics. This reflects a general attitude of neglect in protecting workers against unsafe conditions...But asking Wal-Mart, Gap and other brands to substitute for the somnolent government will only marginally address worker safety reform. What is necessary is for the Bangladeshi government to stop resting on its laurels...and step up to the plate to establish proper regulations and monitoring, extending to all of Bangladesh, not just its garment factories."

Full entry

 

 


Kellie A. McElhaney, Haas School of Business at Univ. of California, Berkeley

Kellie McElhaney is Adjunct Assistant Professor & founding Faculty Director of the Center for Responsible Business at UC-Berkeley.

"Corporations Must Be Proactive"

"Companies' supply chains...source from developing countries, many of whom have lax -- if they exist at all -- government standards and regulations and an inability to enforce rules. In terms of gross domestic product, companies have now surpassed some countries...Western consumers demand more and more goods at lower and lower costs...However the expectations that companies operate in society’s best interest have never been higher...There are real business costs to the company when workers die and factories are shut down...It is simply unacceptable that many corporations respond to these tragedies with passive statements along the lines of 'We were unaware.'...Indeed, the only responsible answer to a tragedy like the recent fire at Tazreen Fashions in Bangladesh is 'We should have been aware, we are sympathetic to the loss of life, and here is our plan to mitigate such disaster moving forward.' ...Earlier this fall Gap, Inc. introduced such a plan, its Four-Part Fire Safety Action Plan...Responding early, accepting responsibly, developing an action plan and urging industry collaboration is the only way that companies will escape further loss of life and accidents in their supply chain." (also refers to Apple, Nike, Tazreen Fashions [part of Tuba Group])

Full entry

 

 


Auret van Heerden, Fair Labor Association

Auret van Heerden is president & chief executive of FLA.

"Workers Are the First Line of Defense"

"Brands and factory owners must stop relying on one-off compliance audits and should instead seek to address the root causes of fire risks themselves...Instead of a mere slap on the wrist...brands should implement a model of proactive factory assessment to truly evaluate the immediate issues and long-term dangers workers face...Factory owners should reform safety measures, but until they do, workers should organize their own drills, list of demands and checklists...Workers' voices must be heard...The striking lesson of the recent tragedies is that too many factory owners still treat fire safety measures as optional. No factory owner should be able to deny their responsibility to protect the very workers who enable their business to exist."

Full entry

 

 


Scott Nova, Worker Rights Consortium, and Liana Foxvog, SweatFree Communities

Scott Nova is executive director of Worker Rights Consortium.  Liana Foxvog is director of SweatFree Communities, a programme of International Labor Rights Forum.

"Raise Prices, Invest in Safety"

"Apparel companies claim they are regularly inspecting their factories...yet every deadly fire in recent years has happened at a factory that had been subject to...inspections. It is impossible to imagine a more dismal record of failure...A broad coalition of unions and labor rights organizations is pressing brands and retailers to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, an initiative that contains...an obligation to raise prices to factories to fund the cost of essential safety renovations and repairs; inspections of all factories...with full public disclosure of the results;...and protection of workers’ rights to organize and fight for their own safety... – all legally enforceable...The public should not be fooled: unless global companies are willing to raise prices...and make...commitments that can be enforced, there will be more fires and more deaths...It would cost the brands and retailers less than 10 cents per garment to make their factories in [Bangladesh] safe and put an end to this horror."

Full entry

 

 


Debby Chan, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM)

Debby Chan is a project officer at SACOM.

"It’s a Matter of Commitment"

"By outsourcing production,...the brands have impunity. Whenever companies are accused of poor work safety measures, they...[state] they have their own codes of conduct, blaming the suppliers instead for noncompliance.  In the toy industry, toy safety (for the consumer) is of paramount concern to the international brands and their manufacturers...[But] worker safety issues alongside other labor standards are always compromised...The fact that companies can enforce strict toy safety rules in their factories means that they can also enforce strict worker safety rules. It is only a matter of commitment...[The] United Nations adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011...The right to remedy [under the Guiding Principles] deserves more attention. To remedy...consists of more than just giving restitution...[There] must be measures in place to prevent the repetition of the tragedy and ensure worker access to justice."

Full entry

 

 


Daniel Ikenson, Cato Insitute

Daniel Ikenson is director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.

"Financial Incentives to Improve Safety"

"Obviously, the conditions in these factories in developing countries do not appeal to the sensibilities of wealthy nations. But the proper comparison is between the alternatives that would exist...in the absence of Western investment....Nicholas Kristof['s]...stories about the subsistence options confronting Cambodian women before the arrival of apparel factories -- picking through garbage dumps, backbreaking agricultural work and prostitution -- remind us to not make the perfect the enemy of the good...Western investment in developing-country factories...tends to raise the average wage, improve the health and safety conditions of the workplace...Labor or environmental abuse, lax safety standards and...hazardous products...are detrimental to the bottom line. As cold as that may sound, those considerations compel companies to submit to third party verifications.  Companies have incentives to get it right, but that does not mean there will never be tragedies. Without Western investment in developing country factories, such incidents would happen more frequently."

Full entry

 

 


Khalid Nadvi, Institute for Development Policy & Management, Univ. of Manchester

Khalid Nadvi is a senior lecturer in development economics at Institute for Development Policy & Management, University of Manchester (UK).

"It Will Take a Collective Effort"

"[A] vast audit industry...[provides] advice to local firms on how...to meet international standards while also monitoring, through tick-box checklists, actual practices. There are, however, no effective mechanisms to monitor the monitors...In many countries private monitoring has replaced the public sector labor inspector..., for example...in Pakistan...[The] fact that the state is playing a diminishing role in ensuring good working practices within its borders is a detrimental step...As consumers we need to be more informed and inquisitive about our purchases...Brands also need to reduce pressures on suppliers to produce and commit to integrating compliance and sourcing arms.  We should also demand more from suppliers in developing countries...Firms that [ensure decent working conditions] ultimately raise quality standards and productivity...Finally, we need to demand more of governments...Brazil’s labor inspectors have worked with local producers to address the root causes of...noncompliance in ways that have led to better outcomes for workers, their communities and the factories..."

Full entry