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Global Standards for Garment Industry Under Scrutiny After Bangladesh Disaster

April 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And next to the Bangladesh building disaster. It’s now the worst ever for the country’s booming clothing industry, with more than 300 killed.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Wailing relatives tried to console one another as the death toll from Wednesday’s collapse of an eight-story building kept climbing. This father was left weeping with his son’s coffin at his feet. Others held up photos of loved ones still missing.

WOMAN: For the last three days, I have been looking for my sister, but no trace. I want get my sister back, alive or dead.

RAY SUAREZ: So far, rescue crews have pulled more than 80 survivors from the rubble. One government official said 41 of those were found alive in a single room overnight. At a nearby hospital, an 18-year-old worker described her ordeal.

WOMAN: First, a machine fell over my hand and I was crushed under the debris. Then the roof collapsed over me. I was rescued last night, but my hand had to be amputated.

RAY SUAREZ: And with high humidity and daytime temperatures reaching 95 degrees, there are fears that time is running out for those still trapped.

Meanwhile, a local television station released video showing police inspecting the site on Tuesday, a day before the deadly collapse. Large cracks were visible, but garment factories at the site continued running anyway.

Some of them make clothing for several major retailers in North America. Today, thousands of garment workers protested poor conditions and called for the building’s owners to be punished. Some demonstrators clashed with police, but the rallies were mostly peaceful. This new disaster came just five months after a garment factory fire in Bangladesh killed 112 workers.

For more on all of this, we get two views. Avedis Seferian is the president and CEO of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, or WRAP, an organization created by the American Apparel and Footwear Association, along with buyers and brands around the world. And Scott Nova is executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights monitoring organization.

Avedis Seferian, we saw the terrible carnage coming out of Bangladesh this week, coming right on the heels of that fire a few weeks ago that killed so many who couldn’t get out of the building once that fire started. Is there a rule book, a code? Are there guidelines that everybody plays by? Are there standards that garment factories around the world are supposed to follow?

AVEDIS SEFERIAN, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production: This really is an incredibly, incredibly sad tragedy, and our hearts go out to those who were impacted. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who lost loved ones. And we hope for quick recoveries for those who are injured.

The question on everyone’s mind is exactly what you just asked. Is there a set of standards? And the answer is, there are internationally recognized minimum standards for operating manufacturing facilities, whether it be apparel or elsewhere. And organizations like WRAP, what we do is we promulgate those things. We try to foster those standards and we try to encourage factories to put in place the kinds of systems they need to make sure they do meet these standards.

We’re out there providing them with resources through training mechanisms and obviously certifying them through audits to make sure they do meet these standards, all in all, trying to create, to your point, that rule book which all manufacturers ought to abide by to ensure that tragedies like this do not happen.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Scott Nova, there are best practices. Are they being complied with?

SCOTT NOVA, Worker Rights Consortium: They are not.

And, indeed, Bangladesh itself has reasonable standards on the books. They have reasonable labor laws on the books. They have a national building code. The problem is the national building codes in Bangladesh, the labor laws are works of fiction. They’re completely ignored by the factories who are serving the relentless drive of Western brands and retailers for ever lower prices for apparel.

Bangladesh is the rock-bottom cheapest place in the world to make clothing, wages of 18 cents an hour, ruthless oppression of any attempt by workers to organize a union, and complete disregard for the safety of workers. And brands and retailers in the U.S. and Europe have rewarded Bangladesh for those practices by pouring business into the country, making it the second largest apparel producer on the globe, but at a tremendous cost to workers, as we saw this week.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Seferian, if retailers in the United States want to talk to the people who make the clothes that they buy, is it hard now because of the network of not only subcontractors, but even further down the chain, sub-subcontractors and so on, that sometimes mean there are three or four steps before a completed pair of pants or shirt makes it to the United States?

AVEDIS SEFERIAN: Sure. The global supply chain is very complex and becoming even more so day by day.

From our perspective, when you — however complex the chain may be, however many layers there may be, at the end of the day, what really matters is that the worker at the production facility be able to work in a safe, healthy, ethical environment. So, our work focuses on that level, on the factory level. Our trainings, our certification, our entire organization is geared towards working for the workers and making sure that the standards at the production facility are where they need to be.

RAY SUAREZ: How has that supply chain been for people who just don’t want to know a convenient use of the opaque nature of these relationships?

SCOTT NOVA: Indeed.

Part of the purpose of the outsourcing strategy of brands and retailers is to distance themselves from responsibility for the conditions under which their clothing is made. It’s a system that works very well for the brands and retailers. They get extremely cheap prices. They get incredibly fast delivery.

The result is factories striving to meet the demands of these brands and retailers by ignoring the rights of workers, by cutting corners on safety. And then when the inevitable disasters result, the brands and retailers throw up their hands and say, my lord, I can’t believe that was happening in these facilities.

But the reality is, it’s the brands and retailers who have the most power in the system. If they want to ensure their factories are safe, they have the power to ensure their factories are safe. They haven’t chosen to exercise that power.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we have got WRAP here in North America. In Europe, they have the Clean Clothes association, which is trying to do much of the same work.

Can you give us an example of a place or national industry where shining a lot on bad practices actually has improved conditions, actually has saved workers’ lives?

AVEDIS SEFERIAN: Well, I think a better example, especially in context of Bangladesh, which is the center of our conversation, is to talk about what efforts are ongoing now to prevent such tragedies.

And you mentioned it in the lead-in to this, the recent factory fires that have been happening. WRAP has been in Bangladesh now for a very long time. We opened our own local office there back in February of 2011. And as of September of 2011, we have had in place a very effective fire safety training program that we have rolled out to hundreds of factories in Bangladesh, with over 600 workers trained and managers trained.

And the idea there is that we don’t want to just handle these by creating better escape procedures, better evacuation procedures. We want to train factories on preventing these things from happening itself. So, the kind of best practices that really will be impactful going forward are to get people to understand what are the things you need to do to not let happen in the first place, the management systems approach to ensuring that people understand the kind of working environment you have to create so that you prevent the tragedies, and not then have to deal with them happening after the fact.

RAY SUAREZ: As you mentioned, Scott Nova, there are pressures to lower unit costs, to keep costs of productions low. But are there incentives to play by Mr. Seferian’s rules, regular recontracting, reorders? If you want to do well by your workers, can that be profitable to you as well?

SCOTT NOVA: Unfortunately, what the factories have been taught by the decisions of brand and retailers is that what matters to brands and retailers is price and delivery speed, not the rights of workers.

And I have to disagree and say I don’t think this is an issue that can be solved by training. The fundamental reason that workers are dying in factories in Bangladesh is because the buildings are structurally unsafe. They do not have fire exists. They are not soundly built.

No amount of training can train a worker to walk through flames or to walk out of a building that is collapsing around her. We need a massive program of renovation and repair of the industry in Bangladesh, which basically consists of 5,000 extremely dangerous factories. And that program of repair and renovation has to be funded by the brand and retailers, who have the resources to pay for it. They have to demand it. They have to compel their suppliers in Bangladesh to implement it.

They have to cover the costs. Then and only then will we see an end to these tragedies.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, because we really are out of time, briefly, yes or no, practically, are American retailers ready to do what Scott Nova just described?

AVEDIS SEFERIAN: I think we’re exaggerating by saying that we have 5,000 dangerous factories in Bangladesh.

There are shining examples of good factories out there. We need to make sure that those examples are followed by all of the others, so the industry as a whole gets to where we need it to get to.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both.

SCOTT NOVA: Thank you.

AVEDIS SEFERIAN: Thank you.