Critics say such responses are inexcusable, that companies are hiding behind links in the supply chain to duck their responsibility for working conditions in the plants that produce their goods.
‘‘Wal-Mart has little incentive to lay down the law to the factory owner because the factory owner has produced the good at a price that Wal-Mart wants and that (retail) price requires,’’ said Robert Ross, a professor at Clark University who has written extensively on labor abuses in the global apparel business. That ‘‘constrains them to use practices that are either abusive, or exploitative or sloppy.’’
Apparel makers, anxious to ensure quality and protect their images, are well aware of the risks. Since 1996, when an expose showed that clothes sold under celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford’s label were being made in Honduras using child labor, companies have worked hard to prevent a repeat scandal centered on overseas factories. The apparel industry launched Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, a Virginia nonprofit that certifies factories meeting its standards. Most major retailers now require that auditors visit the plants that make their products, to ensure the owners comply with their codes of conduct.
The Tazreen factory was audited at least twice by Wal-Mart in 2011. Its parent company, Tuba Group, posted a long-expired WRAP audit certificate for one of its other plants on its website.
But WRAP’s president and CEO, Avedis Seferian, said audits, alone, won’t eliminate risk. He noted that when the group opened an office in Bangladesh in early 2011, its first project was starting a Factory Fire Training Program, hoping to prevent a recurrence of a 2010 blaze at a plant that made clothes for The Gap which killed 29 workers.
But the complexity of the global supply chain helps create a dynamic that allow factories like Tazreen to continue operating, Green said.
‘‘All of these layers, which I think represent rational decisions at an individual level, result in a system that is pretty irrational, where you have a real lack of transparency about exactly what is going on,’’ he said. ‘‘And when you have a lack of transparency, you have a lack of accountability.’’
AP writers Anne D'Innocenzio and Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report. Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AdGeller .