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September Fires, Violence, Highlight Need for Attitude Change

It has been a difficult September for apparel manufacturers worldwide. A range of issues have disrupted global trade — from a series of fires in markets and factories in Pakistan and India, to anti-American riots throughout the Middle East, to ongoing strikes in Bangladesh. Peripherally, riots at Foxconn and other manufacturers underscore deep tensions within Chinese manufacturing. A September like this could be regarded as an isolated series of tragedies, or, for the forward-looking executive, as an opportunity to revisit commitments to compliance and social justice within the industry as a whole.

More than 300 workers were killed on September 12th, when fire broke out in a textile factory complex near Karachi. The workers died because the fire exits were locked shut, and the windows were mostly barred. Some workers threw themselves off the fourth floor of the building. The factory had recently been found to be compliant with the safety standards of the firms manufacturing there, raising questions about how, exactly, conditions came to be so unsafe. An investigation is ongoing, but one fact that has already been determined is that the procedures in place to insure compliance did not work.

In India, a fire at a leather factory in Kanpur on Monday evening destroyed the building with workers trapped inside. They were rescued by fire fighters, but this is only one of many incidents that occur annually. The fire was reported sparked by mishandling of leather pasting chemicals. Again, social compliance requires the factory to handle the chemicals safely and ensure safe worker escape routes, but those rules seem to have been flouted.

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Rule breaking has also led to work stoppages in Bangladesh, as workers claim that owners have failed to issue back pay or to obey work hours. Initially, over 100,000 workers went on strike in an industrial area outside Dhaka. The strikes were met with police violence, and factories were shuttered in an attempt to avoid the vandalism that mired the worker’s riots in June. In the most recent round, strikers barricaded the road between the industrial district and the Port of Dhaka, halting all shipping operations. The strike continued following the release of a video perceived to be insulting to the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, and spread into a nationwide problem.

That video has sparked unrest throughout the Muslim world, including in many textile and apparel producing countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt. Tensions are high in Turkey, but the government is reported to be maintaining strict control over the situation. Disenfranchised Islamic youth are rioting in Marseilles, France, as well.

There are lessons to be learned in all this. The firms who certify compliance of factories that burn down or abuse workers will lose business or be forced to close. As instant media has made information about abuses and fires available around the world, brands are less inclined to do business with wholesalers and sourcing firms that have bad records. A single problem or scandal can ripple through an entire supply chain.

The workers in factories overseas are human beings, responsive to pressure, emotional, and flawed. Failure to take compliance seriously, failure to insure worker safety and happiness, and failure to do business with empathy and reason leads to the collapse of contracts and the demise of firms. In an increasingly tight and complex business environment, room for mistakes is limited. Let this September be a wakeup call to all of us.