The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh last April— which killed more than 1,000 people— sparked a slew of promises from major retailers to reform their sourcing standards and increase safety. But as it stands today, that doesn't seem to be anywhere near happening.
The WSJ today has a great look inside the Bangladeshi garment manufacturing business— which they got primarily by tagging along with one peppy entrepreneurial manufacturer, who happens to be breaking a ton of workplace safety laws, and who also regularly subcontracts jobs for retailers who allegedly do not tolerate conditions such as those in his plant. He reveals the inherent stumbling blocks to reforming the tangled Bangladeshi manufacturing system in the first place: extremely tight profit margins that reward cutting corners and make speed valuable above all; big factories that are approved by major retailers that routinely overbook their own capacity, then subcontract out the remainder of the work, and neglect to tell the end buyers that they did so; and lax enforcement of standards on subcontractors. This system works fine for everyone, except the wretched workers who will die in an unsafe factory during the next inevitable disaster.
Bringing every subcontractor up to code would be a huge job, considering the fact that the WSJ says that half of the nation's garment factories— more than 2,000 of them— are subcontractors. Arrayed against that huge mass of workers, bosses, and fundamental unregulated capitalism are resources like this:
A group of 70 mostly European retailers has pledged to sign a binding agreement through which they agree not to hire manufacturers whose factories don't meet safety standards.
In July the group said at it was recruiting a fire inspector. The accord proposes to make public the findings of safety inspections.
A fire inspector. Hope he works fast. He has a few thousand places to check. Hope that there aren't any more deadly garment factory fires in the meantime.