April 26, 2013

Big brands rejected Bangladesh factory safety plan

Julhas Alam and Kay Johnson / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

At the time, Wal-Mart's representative told the meeting it was "not financially feasible ... to make such investments," according to minutes of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

After last year's Tazreen blaze, Bangladeshi union president Amin said he and international labor activists renewed a push for the independent inspectorate plan, but none of the factories or big brands would agree.

This week, none of the large clothing brands or retailers would comment about the proposal.

Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner did not directly answer questions about the unions' safety plans in replies to questions emailed by The Associated Press. H&M responded to questions with emailed links to corporate social responsibility websites.

In December, however, a spokesperson for the Gap — which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains — said the company turned down the proposal because it did not want to be vulnerable to lawsuits and did not want to pay factories more money to help with safety upgrades.

H&M also did not sign on to the proposal because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be taking on the responsibility, Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues, told AP in December.

H&M, which places the most apparel orders in Bangladesh and works with more than 200 factories there, is one of about 20 retailers and brands that have banded together to develop training films for garment manufacturers.

Wal-Mart last year began requiring regular audits of factories, fire drills and mandated fire safety training for all levels of factory management. It also announced in January it would immediately cut ties with any factory that failed an inspection, instead of giving warnings first as before.

And the Gap has hired its own chief fire inspector to oversee factories that produce its clothing in Bangladesh.

But many insist such measures are not enough to overhaul an industry that employs 3 million workers.

"No matter how much training you have, you can't walk through flames or escape a collapsed building," said Ineke Zeldenrust of the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign, which lobbies for garment workers' rights.

Private audits also have their failings, she said. Because audits are confidential, even if one company pulls its business from a supplier over safety issues, it won't tell its competitors, who will continue to place orders — allowing the unsafe factory to stay open.

The Tazreen factory that burned last year had passed inspections, and two of the factories in the Rana Plaza building had passed the standards of a major European group that does factory inspections in developing countries. The Business Social Compliance Initiative, which represents hundreds of companies, said the factories of Phantom Apparels and New Wave Style had been audited against its code of conduct which it said focuses on labor issues not building standards.

"The audits and inspections are too much focused on checklists," said Saif Khan, who worked for Phillips Van Heusen, the owner of brands Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, in Bangladesh until 2011 as a factory compliance supervisor.

"They touch on broader areas but do not consider the realities on the ground," he said.

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