When the inspectors keep calling

Annemarie van Gaal thinks the last thing clothing factories in Bangladesh need is more inspectors. 

It’s terrible that over a thousand textile workers died when the factory they worked in collapsed. But I think the reaction of the Dutch government to earmark €9m to help secure ‘safer working conditions in the Bangladeshi textile sector’ is dramatic too. Surely that is up to the government of Bangladesh?

When I heard about this disaster I immediately thought of the fire at Schiphol seven years ago. Ministers Piet Hein Donner and Sybilla Dekker weren’t personally responsible but they could be held politically responsible and so they had to go. Even the mayor of Haarlemmermeer resigned.

Fair trade

In Bangladesh no-one is feeling politically responsible. The finance minister said the collapse was an ‘accident’ and that ‘this sort of thing could happen anywhere’. If that is his attitude why should we feel responsible? Because we wear clothing made in Bangladesh?

Big European clothing manufacturers like Hennes & Mauritz, Inditex and Primark do feel it is their duty to take a share of the responsibility. Nearly all clothing manufacturers are members of fair trade organisations like the Fair Wear Foundation, SKC and BSCI which have worked for years to better working conditions in countries like Bangladesh. Their inspectors carry out audits and western companies only do business with factories that have a quality mark.

Not long ago I had a discussion with a number of clients and the directors of two of the fair trade organisations. The clients complained there are too many fair trade organisations and that each is conducting its own audit. Clothing factories which work for more than one western client have to open their doors to a new batch of inspectors and free up people and time for every quality mark.

Single audit

Wouldn’t it be much better if all fair trade organisations were to conduct one single standardised audit? Not possible, said the directors of the organisations. ‘Our organisation uses the definition of the minimum wage as the lowest wage level while the competition uses the subsistence minimum as a criterion,’ one said.

Fair trade organisations should stop nitpicking and use a single standardised audit which also checks the quality of the buildings, and fire safety. This is the standard all buyers should abide by, monitored by the authorities. The clothing industry in Bangladesh doesn’t need more definitions, audits and inspectors. And what is Ploumen going to do with the €9 million? I take it you are sitting down already: she is going to spend it on ‘training for another two hundred inspectors’. 

Annemarie van Gaal is an entrepreneur and director of AM media, She is also a writer and television personality.

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