After a factory collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,132 in April, many major retail companies have signed pledges to upgrade working conditions in the factories they use. Yet before upgrades can be made, the buildings will have to be inspected, and an extensive analysis by the New York Times found that the track record for inspections has so far been incredibly spotty as they are riddled with flaws and factory owners are incentivized to game the system.
To control costs, retailers often use cheaper “check the box” single day inspections that might cost just $1,000 an inspection, compared to $5,000 for a thorough, five-day one, the Times reports. But these reviews can cover factories with thousands of employees and are meant to examine all issues, including wages, child labor, and safety conditions. As an example, the Times points out the case of of the Tazreen factory fire, where 112 workers died in November, that had been inspected earlier for the proper number of fire extinguishers and smoke detectors but didn’t look at whether it had fire escapes or fireproof stairways, which experts say cold have saved lives. Meanwhile, some auditors receive just five days of training, compared to the requirement of three years for Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors in the U.S.
At the same time, factory owners have a huge incentive to trick or cheat the auditors when they show up, as they could lose millions of dollars in orders if they get poor ratings. It’s very common to have work done in an unapproved factory and then to bring the products to an approved one for inspection. Owners sometimes bribe inspectors. One factory moved machines into trucks outside to avoid appearing overcrowded. Another played a certain song over loudspeakers when auditors showed up to signal that underage workers should leave the factory. Managers will unlock fire exits and clear stairwells if they know an inspector is coming.
And while the number of inspections has increased, tragedies like those at Rana Plaza and Tazreen continue. While the number of audits in Bangladeshi factories has gone up, 1,800 workers have died in the past decade. Plus other countries like China, Honduras, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Vietnam that also produce lots of garments haven’t seen such an increase in inspections.
Even if inspections were effective, the sheer number of factories in a country like Bangladesh makes it difficult to audit them all. There are about 5,000 factories in the country. Yet between the capital city’s development authority, engineering professors, and industry trade groups, there are not enough inspectors to cover them all.
The Rana Plaza collapse has been officially attributed to “extremely” poor quality building materials and violations of building regulations. Three-fifths of the buildings that have been inspected since that tragedy have been found vulnerable to the same fate.
Since April, 70 retailers have signed a legally binding plan to upgrade Bangladesh’s factories, including H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, and others. Meanwhile, 17 brands led by Walmart and Gap have signed their own less legally binding proposal. The costs would not have to be large: Upgrading all of the country’s facilities has been estimated at $3 billion, which would cost consumers just 10 cents more per garment if the entire price were passed onto them.