Over the last 18 months, fires killed hundreds of workers at garment factories in Karachi, Pakistan and Dhaka, Bangladesh. The factories produced clothing for American manufacturers and retail stores such as Walmart.
Worker safety is the concern of groups in these countries and in the U.S. Over the years, programs certifying the safety of the working conditions have been developed. The question is: how reliable are the certificates of safety?
The job of inspecting factories is often outsourced to private companies. These companies may be paid by the certifying agencies and even by the factories they inspect. There is the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In the last few years, garment manufacturing has shifted from China to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Wages are much lower in these countries. There are four main issues to be considered:
- The products that cost the least to make can be sold for the lowest price
- Developing countries do not have strong trade unions to protect workers
- Corruption is a fact of life in the inspections
- Closing factories that do not meet safety standards means the loss of jobs for workers
In the end, enforcing standards will mean higher costs for consumers. Advocates say, if consumers show their concern for workers by not buying the products, there is a good chance working conditions, including wages, will improve.
Some business groups say competition is fierce. Companies will continue to look for low cost production, and that means fewer jobs in countries with better working condition and standards.
After many years of development, China is now seen as a mature manufacturing country. Wages are rising there. Working conditions have improved.
The challenge of improving standards and not losing jobs remains very large.