Major global apparel companies continue to put at risk the lives of garment workers in Bangladesh by covering up problems identified in confidential audits and ignoring best fire safety practices, a Washington-based labour rights group said yesterday.
Brands and retailers have conducted factory audits but not warned government agencies or workers about imminent dangers, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) said in its 60-page report, Deadly Secrets.
"The brands and retailers collectively possess thousands of confidential factory audits that may reveal workplace hazards and even imminent threats to workers' health and safety. But it seems they have chosen to cease business with factories to safeguard their reputation and brand images rather than reveal their deadly secrets and tell workers about the risks they face. They have kept their silence."
The report from the advocacy organisation came in the wake of two recent deadly factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which together killed some 400 workers and injured hundreds others in September and November.
Auditors demand for a better working environment that requires an additional investment is often ignored when buyers negotiate contracts with manufacturers only on the basis of price and quality of products.
The report also says the US and European corporate investment in the Bangladesh's garment industry has grown steadily over the last two decades though most of its workplaces are unsafe as it offers products at the world's cheapest rate.
Bangladesh has emerged as the number-two garment exporter in the world after China. According to an industry analysis, the country is expected to triple its garment export over the next ten years and may well surpass China.
The ILRF report said Bangladesh's ready-made garment industry is founded on rock-bottom wages, labour rights restrictions and poorly enforced health and safety standards.
"Nowhere in the world are garment workers valued less than in Bangladesh," it said, adding their current minimum wage of $37 per month -- just about a dollar a day -- is $24 less than what Cambodian garment workers, the second cheapest, get a month.
Building and fire safety standards in the factories are notoriously poor, causing frequent fatal accidents, said the report.
"The deadly fires [in Bangladesh and Pakistan] are the inevitable product of an industry founded on the idea of underpaid and disposable workers."
The ILRF calls on apparel companies to put a stop to the epidemic of garment factory fires in South Asia by sharing their knowledge about workplace hazards, paying factories for necessary building repairs and respecting the voices of workers.
“The report calls for a new openness in the garment industry, where companies share what they know about dangerous workplaces and workers can speak up and organise to protect themselves,” said Bjorn Claeson, author of the report.
“We are not there yet, but the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement is a sign that change is possible. In the wake of the enormous tragedies at Tazreen Fashions and Ali Enterprises [in Pakistan], let's seize the opportunity for action. Let's make sure the workers have not died in vain.”