As the number of workers killed in the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh rose to 433, with 149 reported still missing, reactions from big name Western retailers to the disaster have ranged from attempting "distance themselves from the tragedy" to "proactively offering aid to the victims and their families."
The eight-story factory collapsed on April 24, and Bangladeshi police have charged the owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, who tried to escape to India, with criminal negligence and illegal construction. Rana only had permission to build five stories but illegally added three more. Factory managers forced workers to go back to work after cracks appeared in the building. Hours later it collapsed.
The $20 billion garment industry in Bangladesh employs 3.2 million people, often poorly paid and poorly treated, and working in unsafe conditions. Over a dozen international retailers have been linked to suppliers housed in the Rana Plaza complex. While some have expressed their sympathy and regret, and sought to back this up with action, others have been less sympathetic, seeking to play down their links to the complex.
The Italian retail giant initially denied having any links to the building, saying in a statement that "None of the companies involved are suppliers to Benetton Group or any of its brands." However, labor rights activists pointed out that New Wave Bottoms, one of the manufacturers based at the complex, listed Benetton as a client. Activists also found Benetton paperwork and labels in the debris (photos of which the Associated Press released). Following these revelations, Benetton issued another statement admitting that "a one-time order was completed and shipped out of one of the manufacturers involved several weeks prior to the accident." Benetton says that it has now taken the subcontractor in question off its supplier list.
The Children's Place
On the day of the collapse, Jane Singer, a spokeswoman for the Children's Place expressed the company's "deepest sympathies go out to the victims of this terrible tragedy and their families," but said that "while one of the garment factories located in the building complex has produced apparel for The Children’s Place, none of our product was in production at the time of this accident." Following this statement, however, the New York Times revealed that "that over the past eight months, the New Wave factory inside Rana Plaza had made more than 120,000 pounds of clothing that had been sent in 21 shipments to the Children’s Place. A two-ton shipment arrived in Savannah, Ga., on April 5."
The Catalonian clothing manufacturer released a statement expressing regret for tragedy and offering its condolences to the families of victims. It went on to say "that the supplier Phantom was not a supplier of the company, although they were planning to produce some samples for various company lines, samples that still had not been started." Lastly it claimed that "it would have been impossible to detect the structural defects of the collapsed building, since MANGO would not have been able to ascertain that the owners of said had building had built three storeys more than is permitted."
Echoing the comments of The Children's Place spokeswoman, Cato admitted to having used a supplier based at the Rana complex in the past but added that "we did not have any ongoing production at the time of the incident." Again, however, the New York Times retrieved records which show that "New Wave Bottoms has shipped more than 90,000 pounds of apparel to Cato since November, customs documents show, with nine tons arriving at the Port of Charleston in South Carolina in February."
The response of the British retailer was markedly different from those above. It confirmed that one of its supplier was located in the complex and then went even further by releasing a statement saying that it has "partnered with a local NGO to address the immediate needs of victims, including the provision of emergency food aid to families. This initiative began in Bangladesh immediately the extent of the disaster became clear. Primark will also pay compensation to the victims of this disaster who worked for its supplier. This will include the provision of long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to the families of the deceased." It went on to urge other retailers to offer assistance.
The response of many retailers, who have not been upfront about their involvement, has been discouraging. They have failed to back up their expressions of regret and sympathy with meaningful action. On the other hand, the response of companies such as Primark and Loblaw has been encouraging, as they have freely acknowledged their involvement and responsibility to help out.
More, however, can and still needs to be done. The tragedy should be taken as a sign that the current practices of the international garment industry need to be drastically revamped to ensure fairer and safer working conditions. According to Nina Strochlic of the Daily Beast, "Neither Loblaw nor Primark has agreed to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, a 2011 proposal drafted by the National Garment Workers’ Federation that would establish a system of independent factory inspectors."
Others have also called on brands to assume more responsibility for working conditions at not just their own factories, but also those of their suppliers, and also for Western retailers to do more to support local labor rights organizations.