To work in Bangladesh is to come into contact with a disease with a 100% infection rate, where the first symptom is to be transmogrified instantaneously from the righteous among the gentiles to the scum of the earth. No one is immune. Suppliers’ or customers’ vows to improve working conditions lead immediately to global disbelief. When Government or BGMEA, the local garment association, enacts legislation or institutes policies to raise their garment export industry to higher level of compliance, professionals and specialists criticize, and which when moved academic argot to English translate as Liar Liar pants on fire.
The difficulty is that the problem is not Bangladesh. That country is but the most egregious example of a fundamentally flawed and corrupted system.
If we truly hope to avoid a repetition of recent events in Bangladesh, and to avoid repeating the horrific events of Bangladesh elsewhere, we in the industry must scrap the current system of compliance and permit another to take its place.
As a first step, we must stop lying to ourselves and to the rest of the world. We must accept that compliance is not an exercise in customer public relations.
We begin with the customers because much of the problem lies with customers that over 20 years ago voluntarily assumed responsibility to ensure that their suppliers were in compliance.
- The customers invented compliance
- The customers created the standards of compliance
- The customers employed the auditors to ensure that factories are compliant.
Most of us do not need a fire, or for building to fall on our heads before admitting that we have a problem. Yet when disaster struck, the customers collectively washed their hands abjuring any and all responsibility.
We are rightfully appalled that not a single Bangladeshi Tazreen or Sana owner has been charged much less convicted for their failure to prevent these disasters. However, we should be equally appalled that not a single customer sourcing or compliance executive has lost his or her job for their failure to prevent the same disasters.
If we are to avoid future Tazreens and Sanas, the first step is to get the customers out of the compliance business. They are unqualified and worse have serious conflicts of interest. Every customer wants to buy cheap goods from Bangladesh; they just do not want to pay the price. In fact many customers, particularly in the U.S. are beginning to recognize that they no longer want to be in the compliance business, where ethical responsibility may lead directly to legal liability.
Once the customers leave, we can begin to look to establishing a new global reality-based compliance paradigm. The first step is to recognize the parameters.
Compliance is not a country or government issue.
We cannot have a global standard of compliance when each country enacts its own individual legal standard. In some cases local laws, such as minimum age, are unacceptable to the customers. In other cases local laws, such as severance and overtime regulations, are far stricter than customers’ standards and more often than not honored in the breach by local factories. It is not the job of the industry to ensure that factories abide by local laws. No one expects the compliance auditors to ensure that the factories pay their local taxes. The role of the auditor is to ensure that factories meet the global compliance standards.
Compliance is not a national industry issue.
Every country is home to both good and bad factories. We should not attack Vietnam’s garment industry because some state owned enterprises use forced labor anymore than we should attack The U.S. garment industry because some factories in New York and Los Angeles operate at compliance levels more common to Dhaka and Chittagong.
Compliance must be recognized as factory issue.
Countries that are home to some of the world’s most corrupt governments, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, are also home to many factories that act responsibly and with high level of compliance.
A factory’s compliance is irrelevant to its location. No more free passes to Bangladesh based suppliers.
A factory’s compliance is irrelevant to its customer base. We must accept the fact that to some customers compliance is of little or no importance. No more free passes to the outlaw customers.
The Impending Crisis
Because current programs make no effort remedy the flawed and corrupt current system of compliance, they will fail. EU and U.S. remedial programs will not put an end to the string of disasters. There will be more Tazreen fires; more Sana building collapses; more government efforts to put an end to demonstrations with teargas and guns.
Eventually, things will fall apart. Customers will leave taking their orders with them; leaving the workers and the better factories to suffer the consequences of their failed strategy.
The only viable solution is for the good factories to disassociate themselves from the bad factories. Also, they must be seen to separate themselves from the corrupt government and the equally corrupt BGMEA.
They must initiate a new totally independent and manifestly credible compliance system and standard; one that does not rely on the government, BGMEA, the customers, or the even the factories themselves.
This is not difficult task.
The first and most difficult task is for the good factories to recognize they have no viable alternative.