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Factory Disasters Are Still Happening—and This Is a Big Reason Why

A fire tore through a garment factory in East Delhi’s Gandhinagar district in India Wednesday, drawing 15 fire engines to deal with the blaze, local media reports.

While the cause of the fire is still unknown, and no injuries have been reported, the incident is another in a string of industrial catastrophes that continue to plague the global garment industry despite longstanding efforts and assurances by governments, trade unions, brands and non-governmental organizations.

In the Egyptian capital of Cairo, 25 people were killed and 75 others were injured after a 10-story building in Gesr El Suez collapsed over the weekend with what witnesses described as a “deafening bang.” According to local media, the property housed an unlicensed garment factory on its first three floors; the rest were residential. Rescue operations are still underway.

Eyewitnesses said the building started leaning just days before it fell, with cracks appearing on its sides. On Tuesday, the Egyptian Public Prosecution ordered the arrest of the owner of the building, the owner of the garment factory and individuals it said were responsible for the construction violations that led to the collapse. A prosecution committee from the Housing and Building National Research Centre will examine the building’s rubble to discern the cause of the implosion, while an engineering team will check the structural integrity of neighboring buildings, Khalid Abdel-Al, administrative head of Cairo governorate, said on Saturday.

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The destruction comes only weeks after 20 people died and 24 were injured in an inferno that ravaged a four-story garment factory in the Al Qalyubia province north of Cairo. Twelve fire engines were dispatched to douse the flames.

Building fires and collapses are common in Egypt, which saw an upswell in haphazard and illegal construction in the security vacuum following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. Bribery and corruption, too, are rampant in Egypt, where building owners can buy off those responsible for oversight. Still, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government says it is cracking down on illegal buildings that violate safety standards or hinder traffic—tearing them down if necessary—as part of a drive to upgrade the country’s infrastructure.

On Friday, more than 170 families were left homeless after a fire destroyed a slum area in Rizal Province in the Philippines. The Philippine Bureau of Fire Protection said the March 26 fire likely started from a house that was being used to manufacture garments. In February, 28 workers died in a flooded house that was being used as an illegal textile factory after heavy rains deluged the northern Moroccan city of Tangier.

So-called “shadow factories,” illegal or unregistered subcontractors that fall outside brand or regulatory oversight, are a problem for the fashion industry because audits generally only cover direct suppliers and not those they outsource to. Workers who labor in such facilities—or in home-based settings—are among the least protected in the supply chain, since they lack any of the usual social protections or avenues for redressing problems.

Precise numbers are hard to come by, although a June 2015 survey of two sub-districts of Dhaka in Bangladesh by New York University Stern Business School’s Center for Business and Human Rights found that 32 percent of 479 factories there were informal subcontractors. Of them, 91 percent produced at least in part for export.

Their invisibility aside, such subcontractors “artificially depress” prices because they fail to account for the full cost of producing in line with minimum labor standards, the study said. And because the owners of such facilities operate on razor-thin margins, they cannot invest in basic safety equipment or procedures.

Regulating and creating incentives to formalize shadow factories, such as increasing the frequency of inspections and prosecuting labor rights and safety violations, can help encourage subcontractors to maintain minimum standards of safety and worker protection, the study said. A sustainable garment sector, it added, would fairly distribute the costs of labor-rights compliance across all stakeholders in the sector and not just among those that maintain direct relationships with brands.

The consequences of not doing so have already proven disastrous, labor advocates say, and brands could find themselves in a worsening public-relations nightmare if things don’t change. Illegal subcontractors in Rana Plaza, whose 2013 collapse killed 1,134 workers just outside Dhaka, for instance, filled orders for brands such as Benetton, JCPenney, Mango, Primark and Walmart, sometimes without their knowledge.

“Very, very few industry players have started to look at their suppliers outside of the factory, but that actually has the largest risk implications for them,” Ashia Sheikh Dearwester, chief strategy and partnerships officer at Nest, a New York-based nonprofit that works with artisans and their communities worldwide, previously told Sourcing Journal.