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Quality Control Firms Focus on Flexibility to Counter Coronavirus Disruption

Following a Chinese New Year break that was extended due to the coronavirus epidemic, a significant portion of factories in China have reopened. But beyond postponed production and supply chain struggles, fashion firms are facing potential delays in their quality control processing.

On Feb. 16, Intertek announced that a worker in its Hong Kong garment center contracted the coronavirus, leading the quality control firm to shutter the facility for two weeks in order to protect employees and clients.

This temporary facility closure and other measures such as worker quarantines bring to light the many the implications for apparel companies that depend on China-based quality control firms to keep goods flowing through the supply chain to retail store shelves.

After Intertek’s operations in Hong Kong resumed on Jan. 29 following the Lunar New Year, on Feb. 11, the company found that one of its workers at this location had fallen ill, sparking a temporary shutdown until Feb. 25 to sanitize the building. During the two-week closure, the company is asking clients to send garment samples to its other facilities in Hong Kong or mainland China.

“At Intertek, the health and safety of our people and customers is our number one priority and we apologize for any inconvenience the temporary closure of our center may cause,” the company said in a statement. “To minimize the impact to our customers’ business operations, we have taken immediate action to communicate with them for work arrangements.”

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The company’s mainland China facilities reopened on Feb. 10, but some workers who traveled during Chinese New Year were quarantined upon their return. “While we are aiming to provide the highest standard of customer service, the resumption of normal operations is expected to be disrupted for several days due to the mandatory quarantine requirements in place across mainland China, and to the travel difficulties our colleagues might experience,” Intertek said in a statement.

Intertek has also instated a “complete restriction” preventing employees from traveling internationally to and from mainland China and Hong Kong.

The firm is not alone in seeing an impact from the coronavirus outbreak. Fellow quality control provider Qima has similarly witnessed clients adapt during the global health crisis.

“From our perspective, we’ve seen a slowdown in requests for inspections and audits and many clients have postponed ones that were scheduled following the traditional reopening after Chinese New Year in early February,” Qima CEO Sebastien Breteau said. “We expect delays to continue until mid-March at least. Additionally, many brands have also shifted production and orders from affected factories to their suppliers in less affected areas like Bangladesh and Vietnam.”

Breteau estimates that about 30 percent to 40 percent of factories in China have reopened. However, issues such as road closures remain a challenge in getting workers and supplies to the plants.

Shenzhen-based Sofeast has also recognized the potential disruptions to business as usual, noting that staff might not be able to conduct their routine product inspections. This is particularly challenging, as the company cited an historical uptick in defective products around Chinese New Year.

Laying out alternatives, Sofeast noted that it may be possible for inspections to take place in a cordoned-off area of factories in China, as many of these facilities cannot currently accept visitors due to health regulations. Alternative workarounds include shipping items to other areas of China for testing or training suppliers to self inspect.

“While China is in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, some of our usual services may be affected for everyone’s safety,” the company said. “However, Sofeast is at work as normal and here on the ground in China ready to support you.”

Similar to Intertek and Sofeast, Qima is using geographic flexibility to keep up with customer demand for testing amid the outbreak.

“It’s important to note that not all regions in China have been affected in the same way,” Breteau said. “We have operations in several China provinces and globally across Asia, allowing us to balance some of the workload between our operations centers. Our company culture also promotes remote and flexible working and we’ve been able to use it to minimize impact when coming to the office is not an option.

“We have kept very close contact with all local authorities, and we have been able to react swiftly as new measures are announced,” he added. “It’s challenging, but so far we have been able to prioritize our employees’ safety while also making sure we’re able to meet client requests.”