“Fatal Fashion” analyses fires in garment factories

Thursday, 14 March 2013
The Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) have published a new report titled “Fatal Fashion” that analysed the recent fatal fires at garment factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan. It questions the blind faith that western buyers placed into local audits after more than 400 textile workers lost their lives.

As reported on FashionUnited, the two fires broke out only two months apart – in September 2012 at Ali Enterprises in Karachi and in November 2012 at Tazreen Fashions in Dhaka. Both factories produced garments for brands in Europe and the US – among them Walmart, C&A and Kik.

The circumstances leading to the tragedies were similar: badly ventilated work areas, insufficient fire safety measures, a fear of theft that led to locked emergency exits, thus leaving a deadly trap for the workers. Add to that generally dilapidated building conditions, faulty electrical wiring with frequent short circuits and system overloads and it would have taken more than a bit of luck to save lives.

Only two months after the fire at Tazreen Fashions, a lucky coincidence prevented a similar catastrophe at Smart Exports, a supplier producing garments for European brands close to Dhaka. ‘Only’ seven workers died here because the fire broke out during the lunch break when most of the 300 workers were already outside. Otherwise, it would have looked glum because fire extinguishers were missing and emergency exits locked. Again. So far, nothing has changed – since the fire at Tazreen Fashions, 28 more factory fires were reported in Bangladesh alone, claiming eight lives and injuring 591 workers.

A common pattern is that all factories were inspected by so called independent audit firms that deemed the working conditions to be adequate. Adequate for whom, one wonders. The “Fatal Fashion” report criticises a system that places little emphasise on human rights and their protection as well as the attitude of foreign buyers only too willing to rely on these dubious audit reports.

“The report demonstrates that companies and governments knew about the risks, but failed to take sufficient measures to prevent the fires from happening or to address the needs of the victims afterwards. Governments and companies should act in accordance with the internationally recognised state duty to protect human rights and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, as laid down in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” said Martje Theuws from SOMO.

“These firms lack safety expertise, are not trusted by workers and trade unions rendering their worker interviews implausible, and are commonly paid by the factory owner. Even when they detect violations, they fail to resolve them,” added Tessel Pauli from CCC. Unless fundamental changes happen, factory fires will be unavoidable.

For example, Pauli recommends that buyers should implement safety programs that “include independent inspections with mandatory reparations, public disclosure of workplace locations and inspection reports, and a central role for workers and unions.” Companies should also make sure that pricing covers the costs of eliminating deathly hazards and operating safely. For Bangladesh, a first step would be to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. In their report, SOMO and CCC also list detailed other steps for all parties involved like governments, suppliers, brands, retailers, audit firms and certification bodies.

Foto: Fatal Fashion