As Bangladesh reels from the deaths of hundreds of garment workers in a building collapse, global retailers' refusal to pay for strict, nationwide factory inspections is again focusing scrutiny to an industry that has profited from a country notorious for its hazardous workplaces and subsistence wages.
After a fire killed 112 garment workers at Tazreen Fashions in November, clothing brands and retailers rejected a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry. Instead, companies expanded a patchwork system of private audits and training. Labor groups insist that the moves improve little, with official inspections lax and factory owners enjoying close ties to the government.
In the five months since, there have been 41 "fire incidents" in Bangladesh factories—ranging from a fatal conflagration to smaller fires that caused employees to panic, according to a labor organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Combined, those incidents killed nine workers and injured more than 660.
(Read More: Death Toll Soars in Bangladesh Factory Collapse)
Wednesday's collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which killed more than 300 people, is the worst disaster ever in Bangladesh's fast-growing, politically powerful garment industry. For those attempting to overhaul conditions for workers who are paid as little as $38 a month, it is a grim reminder that corporate social responsibility programs are failing to deliver on lofty promises.
On Friday, some workers were still trapped alive under tons of mangled metal and concrete. Rescue crews struggled to save them, knowing they probably had just a few hours, as desperate relatives clashed with police.
"Improvement is not happening," said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, who said a total of 600 workers have died in factory accidents in the last decade.
"The multinational companies claim a lot of things," Amin said. "They claim they have very good policies; they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system. But yet these things keep happening."
What role retailers should play in establishing safer conditions at the factories that make their apparel has become a central issue for the $1 trillion global clothing industry.
The brands say they are working to improve safety, but the size of the garment industry—some 4,000 factories in Bangladesh alone—means such efforts only skim the surface. That opaqueness is further muddied by subcontracting. Retailers can be unwittingly involved with problematic factories when their main suppliers farm out work to others to ensure that orders are filled on time.
"We remain committed to promoting stronger safety measures in factories, and that work continues," Wal-Mart said in a statement after the collapse. The world's largest retailer said no authorized Wal-Mart production went on in the Rana Plaza building, but one of the factories, Ether Tex, listed Wal-Mart as a customer on its website.
Labor groups argue that the best way to clean up the country's garment factories is outlined in a nine-page safety proposal drawn up by Bangladeshi and international unions.
The plan would ditch government inspections, which are infrequent and easily subverted by corruption, and establish an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh, with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions. The inspections would be funded by company contributions of up to $500,000 a year.
The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world's largest clothing brands and retailers, including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M, but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly.
At the time, Wal-Mart's representative told the meeting it was "not financially feasible ... to make such investments," according to minutes of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.
After the Tazreen Fashions blaze, Amin said, he and other international labor activists renewed a push for the independent inspectorate, but none of the factories or big brands would agree.
Siddiqur Rahman, former vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, denied that the factories killed the plan, adding that buyers did not want to pay for it.
"We welcome anything that is good for the garment industry and its workers here," Rahman said. He also disputed several union groups' figures of dozens of factory fires since November, saying there had been only one.
The Solidarity Center, the nonprofit group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, said its staff in Bangladesh compiled the list of fire incidents from local media and counted any event that caused injury or evacuation as an indication of compromised safety.
None of the large clothing brands or retailers would comment about the proposal.
Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner did not directly answer questions about the unions' safety plans in replies to questions emailed by The Associated Press. H&M responded to questions with emailed links to corporate social responsibility websites.
In December, however, a spokesperson for Gap—which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains—said the company rejected the proposal because it did not want to be vulnerable to lawsuits and did not want to pay factories more to help with safety upgrades.
The Gap has hired its own chief fire inspector to oversee factories that produce its clothing in Bangladesh.
H&M also did not sign on to the proposal, because it believes factories and local government in Bangladesh should be assuming the responsibility, Pierre Börjesson, manager of sustainability and social issues, told AP in December. The company, which works with more than 200 factories in Bangladesh, is one of about 20 retailers and brands that have banded together to develop training films for garment manufacturers.
Wal-Mart last year began requiring regular audits of factories, fire drills and mandated fire safety training for all levels of factory management. In also announced in January that it would immediately cut ties with any factory that failed an inspection.
But many insist such measures are not enough to overhaul an industry that employs 3 million workers.
"No matter how much training you have, you can't walk through flames or escape a collapsed building," said Ineke Zeldenrust of the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign, which lobbies for garment workers' rights.
"The audits and inspections are too much focused on checklists," said Saif Khan, who worked for Phillips Van Heusen, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, as a factory compliance supervisor in Bangladesh until 2011. "They touch on broader areas but do not consider the realities on the ground."