04/25/2013 05:06 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Auditing Bangladeshi Factories Is Not Enough


The eight-story Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed April 24, killing close to 200 people and injuring over 1,000. The building housed at least five garment factories that produced for international brands, including well-known Canadian brand Joe Fresh.

Ever since Joe Fresh labels were found in the ruins of the Rana Plaza building, the brand has been put on the spot to explain what they're doing to ensure that the Bangladeshi workers making their clothes aren't walking into a potential deathtrap each morning.

Joe Fresh's response? That they audit their suppliers for compliance with health and safety regulations "on a regular basis."

I'm sure that will be a comfort to the families of the hundreds dead and the 1,000 injured and left jobless at Rana Plaza.

For at least the last eight years - since the Spectrum Factory collapsed on April 11, 2005, killing 62 workers - brands have promoted voluntary, haphazard, and notoriously unreliable factory auditing as the stock answer to an escalating body count in Bangladeshi factories. Company-controlled auditing programs have failed time and time again to identify serious health and safety risks, let alone fix them.

What is needed is a comprehensive, independent inspection program with a commitment to actually fixing problems when they are found. Further, workers need to be able to participate in active health and safety committees that can help to identify risks on a day-to-day basis, and have the right to refuse unsafe work.

Joe, meet Tommy and Calvin.

After a factory fire in December 2011 killed two women workers and injured 50 at a factory producing for PVH Corp in Bangladesh, the company - owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands - worked with Bangladeshi and international trade unions and labour rights groups to develop a comprehensive fire and building safety program for their factories in that country. They were joined by the German retailer Tchibo, and have since been urging other companies to join the program to get it up and running.

Unlike company-controlled auditing, this comprehensive program includes independent building inspections, public reporting of safety hazards identified and the steps being taken to fix them, training for workers and management personnel on fire and building safety, and real consequences for factories that fail to meet the grade.

Most importantly, it involves working actively with unions and other actors on the ground to make sure workers' rights are protected, and that Bangladeshi families don't have to live in fear that every morning that their breadwinners leave for work may be the last time they see them alive.

This may be the first time that Joe Fresh has been caught up in a disaster of this scale, but as other brands can attest, if they don't engage quickly and actively to change the way they do business in Bangladesh it won't be the last. It's time to do more.

Here's how: first, they should embrace transparency, releasing any audit reports from the factory involved. Second, they could agree to join with other buyers in paying just compensation to the injured workers and the families of those who died at Rana Plaza. And third, they should collaborate with PVH, Tchibo and other companies on implementing a comprehensive Fire and Building Safety Program in Bangladesh.

Joe Fresh In Bangladesh Factory