Factory fires in Bangladesh are, unfortunately, not uncommon. But when, in April, an eight-storey factory collapsed in the capital Dhaka, it sparked an international outcry. The accident at the Rana Plaza building was the worst industrial disaster in the country’s history. More than 1,000 people died.
The ripples from the collapse spread far beyond Bangladesh, because the factory produced clothes for several international and western retailers. Subsequent public pressure pushed these retailers to try and enforce some level of inspection or building standards.
The result is two agreements, one by European clothing brands, one by American companies, announced last week for joint inspection standards across thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh. Together the two agreements cover more than 100 companies, including household names like Marks & Spencer and Carrefour, who have agreed for certain safety standards to be enforced in factories that they use, as well as regular inspections.
Many international brands have been accused of having their products made in factories where standards are sometimes well below what would be expected in the developed world. Disney, Apple and Wal-Mart have all had such accusations levelled against them. Yet, assigning blame is a complex task. For certain companies, particularly those that make their ethical stance explicitly part of their brand, revelations of, for example, child labour or poor working conditions can impact their brand image.
But for other companies that outsource their production to countries like Bangladesh or China merely because of the cost considerations, it is often unclear what precise responsibility they bear for the conditions in a factory they do not own. Many factories, for example, will make products for more than one retailer.
Enforcing safety standards is primarily a job for government. It is only because some governments can be lax or are faced with corruption that these standards slip. In such a situation, it is important that the companies who pay these factories step in and try to pressure both the governments and factories to maintain good working conditions.
No one benefits when working conditions are dangerous. Consumers in the developed world are ravenous for cheap clothing. But clothing is very expensive when it comes stained in the blood of those who made it.