The blaze that erupted on Saturday at Bangladesh’s Tampaco Foils Ltd. factory, killing 31 people and injuring others, is bringing renewed focus on factory safety for one of the world’s leading garment exporters as well as other sourcing hot spots. (Tampaco Foils provides packaging materials for tobacco and food and drink products for companies including Nestle Bangledesh and Nabisco Biscuit & Bread Factory Ltd.)
Saturday’s accident comes three years after the collapse of Bangledash’s Rana Plaza building that claimed more than 1,100 lives and was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the garment industry.
Since the Ready Made Garments (RMG) sector is the biggest earner of foreign currency in the country, factory safety in the nation’s garment center is understandably a major concern. In 2012, 112 workers died in another fire at a garment factory just outside the country’s capital.
But with nearly 99 percent of footwear sold in the U.S. being imported from other countries and a large percentage of apparel having a non-U.S. origin, the issue extends well beyond a single sourcing locale.
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According to Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, when it comes to factory compliance issues abroad, in some ways footwear brands may have a one-up on other industries, but there remains work to be done.
“Since 95 percent of the footwear is produced in China, Vietnam and Indonesia producing, the benefit is that there is less risk spread across those countries,” Priest explained. “But even though there is less risk when it comes to structural issues [in these countries], we’re constantly [promoting] fire safety and environmental health safety. Brands need to realize that they need to have open communications with their supply chains, they need to have a code of conduct in place.”
A more stringent and publicly assessable code of conduct was at the core of Nike Inc.’s response to widespread criticism of its labor practices and supply chain operations in the ‘90s.
“A code of conduct allows companies to say [to factories] ‘this is what we expect —we expect you to maintain your facilities and ensure that they’re safe; your exits [should be] free and unlocked; you [should] have fire extinguishers and evacuation plans and proper ventilation; and you should treat your workers a certain way,’ ” Priest said. Brands and retailers can also have auditors actively check to make sure those requirement are being met, he added: “It’s not an easy thing to manage but it’s vitally important that brands and retailers do.”
And when tragedy does strike at a factory that a U.S. brand has a relationship with, there are more effective ways to respond, Priest explains.
“The first step is understanding what actually happened on the ground — get the facts,” Priest said. “[Ahead of an accident] you should have mapped out what your process is to manage an industrial accident at one of your suppliers — whether that means sending people to the site to conduct interviews and see if there was negligence involved and if there was, deciding whether you should maintain that relationship.”
Determining how the factory plans to compensate workers and families negatively impacted the situation should also be a part of a U.S. company’s response to an accident at one of its overseas supplier’s factories, Priest noted.
Although the FDRA and other footwear-and-apparel trade advocacy groups vow to help their members create robust and stringent sourcing and compliance programs, Priest said a more progressive approach to sourcing and factory safety compliance hinges on communication and collaboration.
“Back in the day, a lot of brands and retailers had a ‘comply or die’ model, meaning that if a factory didn’t follow certain rules, they were cut off — we were automatically incentivizing factories to lie to us because no one is perfect,” Priest said. “Nowadays, our code of conduct takes a ‘continuous improvement’ approach — there is zero tolerance for child labor and forced labor — but there is flexibility in the relationship in that if you’re upfront and honest with us about [other] challenges, we will create a corrective action plan with you collaboratively.”