LONDON, United Kingdom — The death of more than 40 labourers in a raging factory fire in New Delhi has shone a fresh spotlight on the serious safety abuses that continue to plague the industry’s complex and opaque supply chain.
The blaze broke out early Sunday morning in a residential building that had been illegally converted into a factory manufacturing products including bags and clothing. The building, in the northern Delhi neighbourhood of Anaj Mandi, had no fire certification or emergency escape route, according to The New York Times. Windows were blocked with metal grills, flammable objects covered staircases and one of the building’s two exits were locked when the fire broke out, Atul Garg, New Delhi’s chief fire officer told The New York Times.
The fire is one of the worst to affect the garment manufacturing industry in several years, but it exposes common safety issues that continue to plague fashion’s supply chain — a dark and sometimes deadly underbelly to the glamorous ad campaigns big brands present to their well-off consumers.
Such disasters are “symptoms of systemic issues which still haven’t been fixed,” said Carry Somers, founder and global operations director at Fashion Revolution. “I’m fully expecting to see another large disaster happening with significantly more people dying unless the whole system changes.”
In 2012, more than 100 people died in a fire at the Tazreen garment factory in Bangladesh. That same year, a fire at the Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan killed more than 250 workers. In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex became the deadliest garment industry disaster in modern history.
For the most part, these disasters have done little to change the way fashion operates. Though they’ve led to hand ringing and public recriminations for brands found to use unsafe factories, there have been no wholesale attempts to solve issues of lax regulation and enforcement or outright abuse.
A notable exception was the Bangladesh Accord, a legally binding commitment to ensure worker safety that was put in place after Rana Plaza and led to significant improvements in many of the country’s factory standards. But more recently moves to place the Accord’s functions under the control of Bangladesh’s manufacturers’ association have raised concerns that standards could slip back.
Elsewhere, a report published earlier this year by a coalition of workers’ rights groups found that even though multiply workplace safety initiatives have been put in place in Pakistan since the Ali Enterprises fire in 2012, all of them have limited transparency and none are enforceable. None were developed with the participation of unions or other local labour rights groups. Clean Clothes Campaign, which was one of the organisations involved in the report, said more than 120 workers have died in factories in Pakistan due to unsafe conditions since the 2012 fire.
For the most part, brands still rely on auditing for legal compliance with often lax or poorly enforced regulation to give cover to safety claims. Such initiatives have so far failed to structurally improve factory safety across the industry. Opaque and convoluted supply chains contribute to the problem, making it difficult for brands to credibly trace a safe supply chain.
“Generally there are two important ways in which safety should be addressed,” said Christie Miedema, campaign and outreach coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign. “Apparel companies should engage in binding commitments with labour representatives in order to address the safety in their factories and the capacity of national inspectorates should be built up, in order to also cover factories that do not produce for export."