Reports: Retailers Falling Short In Improving Factory Conditions

Retail powerhouses H&M, Walmart and Gap have come under fire after a series of new reports indicates that the companies have fallen short in their pledges to improve the safety of overseas workers.

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a global coalition of trade unions as well as workers’ and human rights organizations that proposes suitable wages for garment workers across Asia, reported that labor issues persist in countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangladesh. In 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh caused more than 1,100 deaths and moved companies to push for stronger labor protections.

Two coalitions of retailers resulted from the disaster, the H&M led-Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Gap- and Walmart-supported Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, each making a five-year commitment to improve working conditions in the country.

The Accord reports that of the 108,000 issues identified through inspections at the roughly 1,600 Bangladeshi factories covered, 60% have been reported or confirmed as corrected. In addition, the Alliance group reports more than half of the issues at more than 600 active factories have been repaired. However, the Wage Alliance says not enough has been done.

In Cambodia, the Wage Alliance reported, factory workers who make products sold at Walmart are required to work 10 to 14 hours a day, in the heat, without access to breaks or clean drinking water. At H&M’s supplier factories, the Wage Alliance specified low wages, sexual harassment and safety hazards. At one of Gap’s supplier factories, workers were regularly forced into working more than 100 hours a week at poverty-level wages, the Wage Alliance said.

Corporation and promotional apparel suppliers say that they’re noticing changes – albeit slowly – to overseas manufacturing procedures. DBEBZ Apparel President David Bebon has an extensive history with Bangladesh – his then-company Capital Mercury Apparel became the first company in America and Europe to open an office in the country. “It used to be the Wild West,” Bebon told Counselor. But after the 2013 disaster and the formation of the retailer coalitions, he noticed that about 5% to 10% of factories in the country shut down.

“Does more progress need to be made? Sure. But that’s a step in the right direction,” Bebon said.

Erin Gallagher, marketing director at World Emblem (asi/98264), said the company has two manufacturing locations outside the U.S. – one in Canada and in Mexico. “They are World Emblem-owned and we have third-party testing for social compliance,” Gallagher told Counselor. “Our Mexico location even has a doctor and nurse on staff along with a cafeteria, which the U.S. locations don't have.”

HanesBrands, parent company of Hanes Branded Printwear (asi/59528), lays claim to being the only apparel producer to be honored by the Great Place to Work Institute for its workplace practices in Central America and the Caribbean.

“More than 90% of the apparel units that we sell worldwide and in the United States are manufactured in our own plants or those of dedicated contractors,” the company states on its corporate website. “We take great pride in our strong reputation for ethical business practices and the success of our Hanes for Good corporate responsibility program for workplace practices and community and environmental improvement.”