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Despite progress at Bangladesh apparel factories, formidable obstacles remain

No one said it would be easy. Even in the wake of the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse last year it was clear: Good intentions had to overcome conflicting interests. Now, reality bites.

Rana Plaza and similar tragic events shocked many major international retailers and brands into action. Two remediation alliances were formed to inspect and improve working conditions at the many Bangladesh apparel factories. The European-dominated Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a group of about 150 retailers and brands, has now completed inspections at some 1,000 Bangladesh factories and forced temporary closing at several with dangerous conditions. A parallel North American-dominated group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, is nearing completion of its objective of inspecting some 600 factories supplying its members.

But inspection of factories is one thing, improving them — or getting them closed temporarily or permanently — is quite another. Ian Spaulding, a senior adviser to the Alliance, recently told the New York Times : “The first phase of our work on inspections and safety training is behind us — that’s the easy part. The hard part is now in front of us, getting fire doors installed, getting fire sprinkler systems, increasing water capacity for fire suppression.”

The obstacles to that kind of safety progress are still formidable. The Bangladeshi government has occasionally supported manufacturers opposed to having their factories closed, even temporarily and workers, in fear of losing their pay and jobs, have held raucous street protests. 

As in many corporate social responsibility/sustainable development initiatives, retailers and apparel companies addressing these safety issues are developing management and resource innovations to protect their valuable reputations while improving lives in their supply chain.