Factories lack fair and accountable safety codes for workers

A 2015 study shows U.S. fashion companies are using more international sources than the previous year. Many of these companies have systems to ensure factory standards, but a labour advocate says these systems often exclude the voice of workers – potentially compromising their safety.

According to the study, which was commissioned by the United States Fashion Industry Association, only 53 per cent of respondents were sourcing in the United States, a huge drop from 77 per cent in 2014.

There were some limitations with the study, however.

A different sample was used for each year and, as a result, it’s difficult to tell whether those findings simply have to do with the fact different companies participated.

Nevertheless, Judy Gearhart executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum says U.S. manufacturing has been declining since the 1980s, due to cheaper transportation and better communication.

According to Bob Kirke executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation, “approximately five per cent of clothing sold at U.S. retail is manufactured in the United States.”

Whilst domestic sourcing is plummeting, study results showed U.S. fashion companies are also choosing to source from more international destinations.In 2013, 1,129 people were killed after a factory collapsed. The factory had produced garments for several brands including Joe Fresh, Walmart and the Children’s Place. Photo courtesy rijans, Creative Commons Licensed

The study found China is still the most popular sourcing destination, says Sheng Lu, author of the USFIA study and a fashion and apparel studies professor at the University of Delaware. Regardless, respondents expressed strong interest in increasing sourcing from other Asian countries, including Bangladesh.

“Chinese textile and apparel companies are moving factories to other lower-cost countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam, which helps boost the production there,” he says.

According to Kirke, “diversification shields firms from risks of various sorts – i.e. safety issues in Bangladesh. After Rana Plaza, an incident in which a factory collapsed, killing 1,129 workers, a greater share of our imports came from other low cost countries such as Cambodia.”

Gearhart agrees cheap labour costs make a country a valuable choice as a production location. “Pressures from Wall Street for a company to not just make a profit each year, but to grow each year (means) factory owners have to reduce margins somewhere.”

Gearhart says this pursuit of ever-smaller profit margins means a constant push for lower prices at the factory level.

“They’re going to cut margins in terms of the condition of the factory and keep workers’ wages low,” she says.

This begs to question whether diversification actually does shield firms from risks, or if it means more potential risks to regulate.

“A lot of the global brands have put together codes of conduct and monitoring systems,” says Gearhart. “What we’ve found again and again is that those monitoring programs have failed.”

Rana Plaza, which took place on April 24, 2013, is one example. The previous year, two other horrific tragedies occurred; 257 workers died in an Ali Enterprises fire on Sept.11, 2012, and 112 died in a Tazreen Fashion fire on Nov. 24, 2012.

With proper safety procedures in place, these deaths could have been avoided.

This Chinese-owned textile factory is one of many that U.S. fashion companies outsource to for cheap labour costs. But many of the factories are lacking in fair and accountable safety codes for the workers. Photo courtesy K. Kendall, Creative Commons Licensed“Those tragedies … were direct suppliers to the brand, not sub-suppliers, and they had been monitored or certified by programs that the brands were using in order to quote, un-quote ‘ensure decent and safe working conditions,’” says Gearhart.

But the voluntary and confidential nature of workplace monitoring systems promoted by global apparel brands are “fundamentally flawed,” says Gearhart.

“By being confidential, they confine problems that they don’t need to report … to authorities (and) workers.

Gearhart believes because they’re voluntary, if they find problems in a factory and they don’t get fixed, the brand simply walks away without telling anyone.

As fashion companies expand international production, they must engage in fair and accountable safety codes in factories.

Gearhart says a system needs to be established involving workers and trade unions in both the governance and implementation of whatever preventive measures are put in place.

These trade unions must be accountable to workers and “able to negotiate with management on the implementation (and) oversight of things,” she says.

The system must also be transparent. “You’ve got to see the inspection reports, whether or not repairs have been made and confirmed,” Gearhart says. “Otherwise, we have no way to push the brand or the factory on making sure everything is safe.”

The Calgary Journal contacted the United States Fashion Industry Association but they did not respond when asked to comment on Gearhart’s points.

Finally, says Gearhart, the system cannot be voluntary. “There needs to be a commitment from the brand to stick with the factory … you can’t just walk away when you find a problem … we’re looking for binding commitments from the brands.”

ethwaites@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this story is Zoe Choy, zchoy@cjournal.ca