Survivors and fire officials described the harrowing scene that unfolded inside India’s Nandan Denim on Saturday: workers shouting and crying as they tried to escape a fire on the floor of the textile factory through the lone exit, a door that could be reached only by climbing a steep ladder.
“There were hardly any means of escape from the blaze,” Rajesh Bhatt, a senior fire official, told the Associated Press. Police found that the Ahmedabad-based factory had violated numerous safety regulations, the news agency reported, leading to the arrest of the factory’s owner, a manager and fire safety officer.
Seven years after a Bangladeshi garment factory collapsed, leaving more than 1,100 people dead, the fire in the Indian denim factory has once again highlighted health and safety issues in the garment and textile industry, in which apparel consumption by the United States alone is worth an estimated $2.4 trillion.
Work rights advocates such as JJ Rosenbaum of the Global Labor Justice Project said basic governmental regulations at the local level are needed – and in most cases exist but are weakly enforced. Cooperation, and ultimately responsibility, she said, falls to the brands that benefit from the cost-cutting measures of their suppliers, usually at the expense of worker health, safety and dignity. It is a strategy brands may not want to acknowledge, but one they cannot plausibly deny exists.
“There aren’t many ways to produce a garment more cheaply,” Rosenbaum told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
Nandan Demin workers told the AP they’re paid about 35 cents an hour, working 14-hour shifts in dangerous conditions that often leave them little time to eat meals or use the bathroom. As the fourth-largest denim maker in the world, the company claims it supplies denim to brands like Zara, Ralph Lauren, Target and Ann Taylor, according to the company’s website.
A spokeswoman for Ralph Lauren told The Post that the company has no production in Nandan’s factory in Ahmedabad and is in the process of ending a “limited and declining business” at another of the company’s factories. A spokesman for Target said the company has never had a relationship with Nandan. The parent companies of Zara and Ann Taylor did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Tracking the supply chain can be a murky process for brands because of the layers within the textile-making process. The level closest to clothing brands is the factory that sews the garments and sends them to be distributed. Below them are companies such as Nandan, which make fabric. Yet another level down are companies that make the yarn for the fabric. The farthest-removed level in the supply chain is the company that harvests the cotton or other raw material.
Labor advocates said that apparel companies have the most power – and thus the most responsibility – to ensure their suppliers are maintaining safe and healthy work environments. After the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013, more than 200 apparel companies, including giants like H&M and Zara, signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The accord set in place legally binding agreements on health and building code inspections, training and independent monitoring committees. It didn’t yield quick results, but nearly seven years on, the accord has fostered the physical transformation of factory buildings in Bangladesh, labor advocates say.
The scale of the tragedy in Bangladesh was effective in getting global apparel companies to take more responsibility to improve conditions in their supply chain, but Rosenbaum said it has not yielded systemic change throughout the garment industry.
“Sometimes the problem we face is a compassion fatigue: the notion that it can’t be that bad if it’s happening all the time,” Rosenbaum said.
Brands are unlikely to act on their own accord to push for changes short of facing serious damage to their reputations because of crises like rape or death in their supply-chain workplaces, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. Ultimately, apparel companies must be willing to submit to and pay for enforceable agreements that regulate working conditions.
If brands are monitoring the self-created codes of conduct they claim to hold their suppliers to, then how is it possible “in a factory owned by one of the biggest producers in the world that the only way out of the building is up a ladder?” Nova said.
“It would’ve taken a competent fire and safety engineer 10 seconds to see there was only one exit,” Nova told The Post.
“It doesn’t cost that much to put fire exits into a textile factory,” he added. “Essentially, these seven workers died to save brands and retailers a few cents on a pair of jeans.”