Will Tazreen fire alter retail-supplier relationship?

The tragic Tazreen Fashions fire that killed more than 100 workers last week in Bangladesh rocked the retail garment industry. The garment factory supplied products to Wal-Mart and other retailers, although the giant retailer said that a supplier had subcontracted work to the factory without Wal-Mart’s knowledge. It has since fired that supplier. News reports have also identified other labels as belonging to Sears and celebrity designer Sean Combs, but Sears has disputed that finding, saying none of its products were manufactured at the plant.

The $490 billion global apparel manufacturing industry is highly dependent upon Asian factories to produce its products at low cost. Worker wages were around $38 a month at the Tazreen plant, for example. The US has outsourced most of its apparel manufacturing operations overseas except for a handful of companies that tout a “Made in America” label (American Apparel, for one). It’s not hyperbole to say that foreign labor runs the apparel industry.

But just as American retailers are dependent upon foreign manufacturers, these manufacturers are also dependent on the large chains that make up most of their customer base. Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Gap are hurrying to condemn the tragic fire and also to distance themselves from it by making statements that they did not contract out to Tazreen. According to the First Research industry report on apparel manufacturing, this dependence upon large retailers is one of the key issues that affect the global garment industry. It may be that the largest retailers in the world can band together and insist on safer worker conditions in the factories that supply their products so that they will not have to issue additional sad statements.

One hundred years ago, public outrage over the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire helped improve worker conditions. As a result, in the West, such tragedies are rare. Let’s wish for a like outcome for the Tazreen fire.

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Photo of a Thailand garment factory by Greg Walters, used under a Creative Commons license.

 

Patrice Sarath

Patrice Sarath is a writer and editor for First Research, covering the health care, insurance, and construction industries.

Read more articles by Patrice Sarath.

Comments

  1. Met PR Blog says:

    Inhumane and illegal labour practices seem to be too easily hidden by these brands, the only time it is brought to our attention is when a tragic event like the fire in Bangladesh happens.
    I think it’s easy to see there is an issue but what do you think needs to be done to combat it?

    I’ve written a post about this on my blog and it would be great to get your opinion.
    http://metprblog.wordpress.com/

  2. Thanks for the mention. I keep hoping that these terrible worker injustices will soon give way to better conditions so some good will come of them. People want and need to work, but this is dreadful. And the fact that these fires continue to happen, 100 years after the tragic Triangle fire that helped change American working conditions, is very frustrating. Are cheap shirts worth the price? Let’s hope that the world can say no and workers’ lives get better.

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