The ill-fated factories at the collapsed Rana Plaza complex in Savar were making clothes for leading international brands, it was revealed on Wednesday night.
Documents recovered from the wreckage and made available to Dhaka Tribune by labour rights activists showed that Ether 33, Phantom Apparel Ltd and New Wave Apparel which were housed on the third to seventh floors of the building were supplying well-known international labels including British retailer Primark, Italian fashion brand Benetton and Spanish clothing label Mango.
The tragedy has once again focused international attention on Western companies' increasing use of factories here to produce low-cost clothes and so-called fast fashion, making Bangladesh the second-largest clothing exporter after China. Labour rights groups say international brands should do more to improve working conditions in Bangladeshi factories.
‘Investigating supply chain’
Primark admitted that it was producing clothes at Rana Plaza while Benetton and Mango said they were investigating whether orders had found their way to the factories in the collapsed building.
Canadian retail giant Loblaw Cos. also confirmed that workers at the complex were making clothes for its Joe Fresh clothing line.
"We will be working with our vendor to understand how we may be able to assist them during this time," a spokeswoman said.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. which was listed as a customer on the website of one of the building's garment contractors, on Wednesday said it was "investigating across our global supply chain to see if a factory in this building was currently producing for Wal-Mart."
Children's Place Retail Stores Inc. confirmed that one of the factories has produced clothing for the company in the past, but said it wasn't currently doing so.
The factory owners could not be reached for comment.
Foreign companies looking for an alternative to China have flooded into Bangladesh in recent years, as rising pay in China has increased the cost of manufacturing there. In China, some provinces have raised minimum wages to more than $200 a month, while in Bangladesh the government sets the minimum wage for entry level garment workers there at less than $37 (Taka 3,000) a month.
Too little too late
In March, Bangladesh's ministry of labor and employment, along with international labor unions and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, adopted a national action plan on fire safety for the industry. Plans included modernising equipment, increasing the number of fire stations in industrial areas and overhauling fire- and building-safety laws and regulations, inspections and worker training.
Wal-Mart, whose products were found at the scene of the Tazreen fire even though it had barred contractors from using the factory, overhauled its global sourcing standards this year, adopting a "zero-tolerance policy" for violations. The retailer warned it would immediately sever ties with the companies that subcontract work to factories without Wal-Mart's knowledge starting on March 1, and at some point would publish the names of terminated factories on its website.
Critics say the changes don't go far enough. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington-based nonprofit monitoring group, said labor-rights groups' calls for better safety measures at Bangladesh factories had been met with "vague promises" from retailers.
Human-rights groups have been calling on apparel brands and retailers to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which would establish a system of independent factory inspectors whose recommendations would be binding.
But the program has yet to get off the ground. PVH Corp., owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and German retailer Tchibo have signed up.
Foreign clothing companies conduct safety audits of factories they use, and normally avoid those based in mixed-use commercial buildings like Rana Plaza because having multiple tenants raises the possibility of hazards like blocked fire exits. But work is often subcontracted to factories in such buildings and complex supply chains make verification almost impossible.