Brand owners who manufacture goods overseas often retain third-party firms to conduct factory inspections, in part to ensure that the workers who make their products are treated fairly and work under safe conditions. Inspections are central to The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, two pacts by Western retailers to improve factory conditions in Bangladesh following a deadly, highly-publicized factory collapse in April.
However, the New York Times recently published a disturbing piece on the ineffectiveness of some third-party factory inspections, particularly in China and Bangladesh. The NYT found that factory managers deceived inspectors with tricks such as unauthorized subcontracting, coaching workers to lie to inspectors, playing a certain song over the loudspeakers as a signal to underage employees to run out the back door, unlocking fire doors that are normally locked, moving equipment out of the factory for inspection day to make it seem less crowded, and falsifying employment records. In addition, some inspectors, under pressure to perform a large number of inspections at low cost, take a superficial, check-the-box approach—or even worse, are susceptible to bribes.
Nevertheless, inspections, if properly conducted, can be an essential tool for brand owners to verify that working conditions are safe and ethical or identify problems to be addressed. This is important not only to protect the brand’s image, but also because it is the right thing to do. But how can brand owners ensure that factory inspections are effective?
CovBrands recommends that brand owners carefully select their third-party monitoring services and make sure that the inspections:
- Include offsite interviews of randomly selected employees outside the presence of managers;
- Are conducted regularly;
- Are not announced in advance;
- Last multiple days; and
- Are conducted by inspectors with sufficient training and experience.
But inspections alone are not enough, as they only provide a snapshot of the factory’s working conditions. To ensure that conditions continue to be fair and safe, CovBrands suggests that brand owners consider the following additional measures, many of which we have previously covered:
- Participate in programs that educate and train factory workers, such as the Apparel Skills Foundation in Bangladesh;
- Require that workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively, as Nike and Inditex (owner of Zara) have done;
- Increase the transparency of their supply chain by, for example, publishing the names of factory suppliers, as H&M and Maggie’s Organics have done; and
- Include provisions in the manufacturing contract that require the manufacturer and any subcontractors to abide by a strict code of conduct.