Corporate Self-Monitoring Faulted For Poor Safety Conditions In Factories Abroad

Photo via the AP

A factory collapse in Bangladesh on Wednesday has killed at least 70 people and left an unknown number trapped, despite warnings from workers that there were cracks in the building on Tuesday. This comes after a fire at a different factory in the same country just five months ago that killed more than 100.

These tragedies highlight serious safety concerns in the world’s second-leading garment exporter. And it comes on the heels of a new report from labor groups that lays some of the blame with social auditing programs that many major American companies use to monitor working conditions in their supply chains. These programs are funded by corporations themselves and have recently come under scrutiny:

Social Accountability International is a recipient of much of the report’s criticisms, along with another non-profit, the Fair Labor Association, which has monitored the Foxconn plant that supplies Apple.

The two groups emerged after a series of sweatshop scandals in the 1990s, when U.S. retail companies and politicians, including then-President Bill Clinton, decided to bring more transparency and accountability to working conditions in the garment supply chain. The auditing process, largely funded by corporate members, now serves as one of the few forms of scrutiny of garment factories in countries with weak government oversight and poor enforcement of labor laws.

Labor activists, however, argue that such auditing is deceptively insufficient, and they’ve grown more critical of groups whose boards are comprised largely of corporate members and academics. According to the report, a majority of Fair Labor Association’s dues money was derived from corporations such as Apple and Nestle in 2010, and two-thirds of Social Accountability International’s funding that year came as earned income from member companies as well as accreditation fees from for-profit auditors.

Social Accountability International was criticized after a fire in Pakistan killed nearly 300 workers at a factory that been awarded its prestigious SA8000 certification. That meant the group had found that it met international standards in nine areas, including health and safety. While it isn’t clear whether the factory in Bangladesh had been inspected or certified by either of these groups, they operate in the country. Yet more than 300 Bangladeshi garment workers died between 2006 and 2012.

These groups only offer voluntary compliance programs and issue non-binding resolutions. But few other routes exist for monitoring and improving working conditions in major companies’ supply chains around the globe. In a 2011 meeting, Walmart decided that paying its suppliers more to upgrade their manufacturing facilities to make them safer, one of which was the Bangladeshi factory that killed 100 people in the fire, was too expensive. One of the workers who survived that fire has since been trying to get large U.S. brands to sign onto a binding contract related to factory safety. Labor groups have also been pressuring them to sign written agreements to upgrade facilities and enforce safety standards.