The Wall Street Journal and other news media report that this past weekend, yet another fire occurred at a Bangladesh apparel factory, with more than 100 workers reported killed in the blaze. This latest incident caused thousands of Bangladeshi’s to protest for safer working conditions, causing the temporary closing of over 200 exiting factories in the industrial zone just north of Dhaka.  Some of these protests turned violet.

The latest incident involved an eight story factory operated by Tazeen Fashions Limited, a subsidiary of Tuba Group.  About 1400 people worked at the factory, the majority of which were women. Survivors indicated that the main exit doors were locked and there were no emergency exits in the building. According to the Canada based Maquila Solidarity Network, past incidents of apparel factory fires have killed over 600 people in the past six years, the latest being a December 2010 incident. Ironically, another fire ta a separate factory within a northern Dhaka suburb broke out Monday, but it was quickly extinguished. Today, police arrested and questioned three factory officials suspected of locking in the workers who died. Some workers, however, expressed support for the factory owner, indicating he was sensitive to worker protests for more pay and against rough treatment of workers.

The factory supplied apparel for sourcing consolidator Li & Fung, who is a supplier to major retailers such as Wal-Mart stores. The WSJ reported (paid subscription or free metered view) that late Monday, Wal-Mart indicated that this factory was no longer authorized to supply clothing to that global retailer, and that Wal-Mart had cut ties to a supplier that had apparently sub-contracted production to the subject factory without authorization. The WSJ notes that documents posted on Tuba Group’s website include a letter from Wal-Mart’s ethical sourcing department informing Tazeen Fashions that a May 2011 audit had found the factory to be “high-risk”. The letter indicated that two more such findings within two years would lead to a one-year suspension. An Associated Press story syndicated in The Huffington Post Business section indicates that in addition to Wal-Mart, the factory also produced apparel for Disney, Sears and other global retailers, some of whom believed that they had stopped sourcing goods at this particular factory. Both Sears and Disney spokespersons also indicated no knowledge that their goods were being produced by Tazeen.

All of these denials of sourcing knowledge obviously point to blind eyes related to the overall apparel sourcing chain and the use of intermediaries to buffer sub-contracting decisions.  While lots of visibility of late has been directed at military style working conditions within high tech and consumer electronics factories in China, apparel factories have had far worse working conditions. Contracts may contain clauses that require disclosure of all factories within the supply chain, but there is a distinct difference in contract language vs. active enforcement. The sourcing of apparel production remains the most sensitive to relentless needs for lowest direct labor costs, causing constant movement in the selection of low-cost manufacturing regions and respective factories that span all parts of the globe.

It is tragic that fires of such proportions, with global visibility, have to call our attention to such conditions, and that retailers and distributors can continue to claim lack of visibility or awareness to such conditions.  Retailers and the apparel industry are long overdue in coming up with a global-wide, enforceable set of worker safety standards. In March, international and Bangladeshi labor-rights groups indicated that PVH Corp., which owns the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands, and many others, had agreed to be part of a pilot two-year fire-safety program. These efforts need to be intensified on a global-wide basis

Bob Ferrari