The owner of a clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was at New York University last week to meet with clothing industry executives, labor activists and American and European government officials to talk about the Bangladeshi garment industry, the world’s second-biggest exporter of clothes after China.
The workplace disasters in this business have grabbed the world’s attention, and for the past year, Western retailers that outsource their clothing production to Bangladesh have tried to come up with reforms. But there are big obstacles to improving safety in an industry driven by low profits and constant upheaval.
I met with the businessman and another factory owner; both would speak only on the condition that they not be identified because they feared offending their customers. A central problem, the first owner told me, is the rapid turnaround big retailers like Walmart demand when they put in orders for tens of thousands of T-shirts or shorts. Since his factory isn’t able to make all the garments in time, he has to send some of the work to smaller producers. “I can’t do it officially,” he said, “but unofficially, I can.”
Unauthorized subcontracting to smaller, uninspected factories is not supposed to happen, but it remains an entrenched practice. It is a primary reason safety guidelines that apply to bigger contractors have not prevented the hundreds of worker deaths in fires and building collapses in facilities like Rana...