Three years have passed since the tragic Rana Plaza apparel factory fire that killed many hundreds of garment workers that were trapped by a factory collapse, and according to a recently published Bloomberg report, (Paid subscription may be required) an uncomfortable truth is emerging: “Vigilance isn’t enough.”  The result is both continued efforts by branded apparel buyers to require more fashionable clothing at cheaper costs, while factories that need to producer such garments are subject to an economic and policy vise.

The report indicates that some factories in Bangladesh have improved, completing more than 60 percent of fixes required by the inspectors sent by major clothing brands. However, of some 1,600 factories covered by the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a major inspection program run by the apparel retail brands, more than 80 percent are behind schedule on completing necessary improvements. Factories covered under the smaller Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety initiative have also reportedly lagged. The government of Bangladesh has since shut down just 39 facilities that posed an “immediate” danger to workers. Meanwhile, industry consortium and government investigators, along with outside organizations, keep finding factory defects.

An ironic observation from this latest Bloomberg report indicates: “The craze for cheap, on-trend clothing that helped turn Bangladesh into the world’s second-biggest apparel exporter, after China, has actually intensified since the disaster. Low-priced brands keep undercutting one another, and that keeps squeezing the factories that produce their clothes.”

The United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) which vows to shutdown unsafe facilities determined in June that factory safety upgrades within the country would cost an estimated $929 million, of which, an estimated $635 million in upgrades have yet to be accomplished. The economics of factory owners being able to secure affordable loans or even be granted such financing to fund needed worker safety improvements clashes with the reality that brand safety consortiums’ financial support is limited. Securing and installing necessary safety equipment is noted as another challenge because of the relentless pressures for product output at lower cost.

Another noted irony is structural in nature. The country’s overall garment industry has new factories opening all the time, in some cases prompting a Darwinian closing of less safe factories, but in-turn, adding to the list of factories that now need to be monitored. The country’s factories are inherently small and their ties to brand apparel buyers is described as tenuous. A further factor is that both industry sponsored worker safety consortium programs only extend to 2018, leaving little time for changes to financed and implemented.

As Supply Chain Matters and others have pointed out in many apparel-specific commentaries, buying practices within the industry continue to foster multiple sub-contracting arrangements where brands are de-facto sheltered or hidden to visibility as to which specific factories are producing certain garments. Such buying practices make contract interpretation and safety compliance standards difficult and subject to needs for continual inspections as to which brand apparel is being produced in any of the country’s apparel factories. Then there are the realities of the workers themselves who must work, regardless of factory safety conditions to sustain their families and livelihood.

As we all look forward to the upcoming holiday buying and gift-giving season, we wanted our readers to be aware of this latest report regarding factory and worker safety progress within Bangladesh, and perhaps other countries as well.

As long as we as consumers, continue to desire fashionable clothing at the cheapest possible cost, without consideration as where and how that clothing was produced, then the industry will continue in its strategies for chasing and demanding the lowest-cost manufacturing source.

The de-facto result seems to be heading toward highly automated garment factories that can produce thousands of garments from robotic machines. The byproduct with that approach are impoverished workers, desiring opportunities to better their economic stature, having such opportunities eliminated.

By our lens, this has always been a challenge for both industry and government collaboration and investment.  Sadly, for the country of Bangladesh, such challenges remain.

Bob Ferrari