Another blaze at a Bangladesh garment factory took the lives of
nine workers and injured nearly 50 others. During the evening shift
on Tuesday, October 8, a faulty heating machine at the Aswad
Composite Mills, near Dhaka, caught fire as employees produced
clothing for major brands including
The deadly Aswad factory fire marks the fourth such tragedy to
strike Bangladesh garment workers in the past year, starting with
last November's blaze at the Tazreen Fashion factory that killed
112 people who were making clothing for global brands like
), and usual suspect Wal-Mart.
While the Tazreen incident shone a spotlight on unsafe working
conditions -- which included padlocked exits and employees forced
to remain at their sewing machines after the fire alarm sounded --
it wasn't until 1,133 people were crushed in the
Rana Plaza factory collapse last April
that companies began to feel public pressure to make reforms.
In an effort initiated by
(STO:HM-B), a group of 90 apparel retailers across the world --
the Fire and Building Safety Accord in May.
Covering more than 1,000 Bangladesh garment factories, the accord
established a set of enforceable safety standards based on
independent inspections, with necessary repairs underwritten by the
corporations doing business in those factories. In addition, as
part of the accord, workers are allowed to unionize, lead health
and safety committees, and refuse dangerous working conditions
Abercrombie & Fitch
(PVH) (the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein), and
Sean John are the accord's sole US-based signatories.
Meanwhile, the largest players in the retail landscape --
(JWN), and others -- instead joined an
that is neither legally binding nor independently enforced and is
designed to allow the industry to perform its own inspections and
audits. Critics and activists call the alliance a
, likening it to little more than a corporate PR stunt.
Also absent from the accord but part of the industry-controlled
alliance are Wal-Mart, Sears, Gap, and
Husdon's Bay Company
(HBC) -- all four of which have had either direct or indirect
business relationships with the Aswad garment factory.
Still, the lives lost in this particular fire couldn't have been
saved by the global accord. In fact, accord signatories Primark,
Next, and H&M had sourced cloth from Aswad.
Workers at the Aswad garment factory dyed, knitted, and finished
fabric and supplied it to companies, but they didn't assemble
finished textiles. Like other mills or dye works at the bottom of
the supply chain, Aswad was
left out of the accord
and fell through the safety net reserved for factories higher up in
the production process. Aswad's sister factory, owned by the same
company, is one such so-called "frontline" factory that is on the
But self-checks, like those in the alliance, of top-tier factories
are not preventing disaster either. The
that a Pakistani factory where there had been a fire that killed
289 workers in September "had received a clean bill of health from
industry inspectors just three weeks prior, while a 2010 blaze in
Bangladesh that left 29 workers [dead] had been previously
inspected by Gap and other customers. Tazreen itself had received
audits by Wal-Mart and other buyers, yet no investments were made
to address obvious fire hazards."
What it would take to impose Western factory standards on
Bangladesh, the second biggest worldwide exporter of apparel
(second only to China), is $3 billion over the next five years. In
a country where American firms reap the spoils of a $19 billion
garment industry, that amounts to less than $0.10 per garment.