Bangladesh: Lax fire-safety plagues garment industry

More than 120 employees died over the weekend in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh, which is the second fire in three months resulting in a large number of fatalities. In September over 300 people were killed in a similar fire incident in Pakistan. Sadly these cases are not unique. Before last weekend hundreds of workers have died due to similar fires. These unsafe working conditions are unacceptable. It raises the question why the sector is not taking the necessary precautions to protect the people who make our clothes.

Worker rights first

In order to effectively address poor working conditions in global supply chains, a shift in mindset is needed which puts worker safety and respect for worker rights at the forefront. Fire accidents in the garment industry could often easily be prevented if electrical wiring complies with safety standards and emergency exits are properly constructed and accessible. One cannot help but wonder if worker lives are really valued enough.

Fashion brands lack effective strategies

Media coverage over the past few days points the finger at brands and retailers. They do have an important role to play but lack effective strategies to address sustainability in the garment sector. Common strategies of fashion companies include codes of conduct and certification. These often lack local ownership and do not guarantee safe and respectful working conditions. Click here to read a related blog about the limitations of Codes of Conduct and auditing.

Factories play a big role

However, alone brands and retailers cannot ensure a safe work environment in their global supply chains. The factory owners and (middle) management need to do what is in their power to ensure safe working conditions. The reports of factories with closed gates, requests to the workers to disregard fire alarms – claiming it to be a malfunctioning of the system – and locked or obstructed emergency exits show deep disrespect of factories for workers wellbeing. The local government also has a role to play, to protect its citizens, and to ensure that companies respect human and labour rights.

A collaborative approach

Brands and retailers can be part of the solution – Solidaridad believes that they need to drive the change, the necessary shift in attitude. That is why the Solidaridad Network in its programmes collaborates with international brands and retailers and the local sector, while involving the government. The aim is to identify problems, focussing on the root causes and solutions. Capacity building is central in this regard. In order to create positive change, locally available knowledge and experience is essential to implement solutions that can be implemented sector wide. For this an open dialogue with all stakeholders involved is needed. Civil society in this regard can act as a facilitator of change, highlighting key challenges and helping to identify human rights issues. Local needs and priorities should be taken into account leading to local ownership of the process. In other words, to create real change a collaborative approach is needed based on shared values and with a commitment of brands and suppliers to long term processes.

Avoid the race to the bottom

The bigger issue on the table is the constant drive for cheap and fast fashion. Instinctively we know that today’s lowest prices do not reflect the real cost of production. Is it an endless race to the bottom, at the cost of worker’s lives in countries like Bangladesh? We should switch to a more sustainable economy, in which the social and environmental costs of production are incorporated in the price. Solidaridad would like to challenge brands and retailers to engage with us in creating better practices and to jointly find solutions.

About Solidaridad’s vision to sustainable change in global supply chains:

Solidaridad believes in a shift to an inclusive economy – one in which people can participate fully. It will respect workers’ rights, provide a safe and healthy workplace, and support a living income for farmers and workers. Industry needs to switch to a responsible means of production. Worker rights are respected and the environment is preserved for future generations, keeping intact its potential. Related to environmental challenges, more efficient production must be coupled with less pollution. Waste becomes a thing of the past. The private sector will need to drive this change, while civil society organisations and governments play an essential role in enabling and encouraging the process.