Pakistan factory collapse: Another wake-up call?

The deadly collapse of a factory in Pakistan highlights the slow pace of improvements to working conditions in developing countries.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters
Rescue workers search for survivors after a factory collapsed near the eastern city of Lahore

Rescuers are searching for survivors of a plastic-bag factory near Lahore, Pakistan after it collapsed Wednesday. As of Thursday, 21 people have died. More than 100 survivors have been pulled out of the rubble so far, according to Reuters.

Media reports say that 150 to 200 people were working in the factory when it collapsed for reasons that are not yet clear. Survivors have said that the factory's owner had ignored advice from his contractor and pleas from his workers to stop construction of a new floor after cracks developed in the walls, following a magnitude 7.5 earthquake near the country’s border with Afghanistan last week.

While there doesn't appear to be US or European clothing retailer to blame in this event, as in the 2013 Bangladesh factory tragedy, it does remind consumers of the true price of low-cost manufacturing abroad. 

“With the building collapse in Pakistan, this certainly calls attention to what can be done there,” as far as labor reforms, says Liana Foxvog, spokesperson for Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Forum in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “Or is this incident going to go undiscussed by apparel companies,” given that the factory made plastic bags, she wonders.

Pakistan gives little oversight to its construction sector with developers frequently violating building codes, Reuters reports. It’s also known for allowing employers to use exploitative labor practices that include forced overtime, poor health and safety conditions, retaliation against workers who speak up about poor conditions, and the “worst forms of child labor,” according to a 2014 US Department of Labor report.

These received significant public attention after a September 2012 garment factory fire in Karachi killed 289 people, but were overshadowed less than half a year later, explains Ms. Foxvog, by the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed at least 1,133 people and injured about 2,000 more. It was the deadliest incident in the global garment industry.

The world couldn’t look away. Public pressure drove 200 international apparel brands, retailers and trade unions to sign a five-year, legally binding agreement to improve working conditions in Bangladeshi factories, called the Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh.

By signing up, companies – including H&M, Inditex (owner of Zara), Tommy Hilfiger, Tesco, and Benetton – agreed to enforce and fund in contracted overseas factories the installation of effective fire doors and enclosed stairwells that seal out smoke, to fix structural problems, or to upgrade electrical wiring.

Change is happening, but very slowly, said Rob Wayss, the executive director of the Accord told Quartz this month. 

“For the large majority of our factories, remediation is behind,” he said. “In too many of our factories, it’s far behind.”

The Accord organization, which has about 120 employees, has inspected at least 1,300 factories since 2003 and has found about 80,000 safety violations. It is not immediately clear how many have been addressed.

Labor organizations, including the International Labor Rights Forum, have taken to publicly shaming H&M, the second largest clothing retailer in the world. It found major delays in safety upgrades in 32 of the company's contracted factories it investigated in Bangladesh. H&M uses 229 factories in the country.

“When we see these big delays in Bangladesh, we're quite concerned,” Foxvog says. “In Pakistan, it’s a reminder that these repairs couldn’t happen soon enough.”

[Editor's note: In the original version of this story, the number of H&M contracted factories in Bangladesh was misstated.]

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