Spotlight on apparel makers after Bangladesh tragedy

Clothing companies' reactions to the building collapse that killed more than 600 workers comes up short, PR experts say.

By Jason Notte May 6, 2013 3:36PM
Credit: © A.M.Ahad/AP
Caption: Bangladeshi soldiers use an earthmover during a rescue operation at the site of a building that collapsed a building collapse in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 24, 2013It doesn't matter if a clothing company tied to the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh acknowledged its presence there and offered compensation or vehemently denied ties to the facility despite evidence to the contrary. Each is going to end up paying a price for it.

The death toll in the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka has risen to more than 600. That's on top of 112 workers who were killed by a fire at the Tasreen Fashions factory in a Dhaka suburb in November.

While Britain's Primark and Canada's Loblaw, which owns the Joe Fresh clothing line, said they produced clothing at Rana Plaza and promised compensation, Loblaw's CEO said there were 28 other brands and retailers using the five factories and urged them to end their "deafening silence." Public relations experts say just speaking up or throwing money at Bangladesh in the wake of this disaster won't do anything to repair the damage.

"Reputation is built over a long period of time. But to lose it, it can take seconds," Rahul Sharma, a public affairs executive with the public relations firm Genesis Burston-Marsteller, told The Associated Press. "They need to send out the message that they are addressing this problem -- and then they need to actually do it."

Sharma and other experts say public relations really shouldn't factor into this discussion at all. Instead, it may be time to take a closer look at the $1 trillion-a-year Bangladesh textile industry, its $37-a-month minimum wage and the reasons Bangladesh may not be so willing to tinker with an industry that accounts for 80% of the nation's exports.

There were five factories in Rana Plaza, though the building was never approved for industrial use and had three illegally added levels before its collapse. Labels for companies including J.C. Penney (JCP), Benetton, Germany's KiK and others were found amid the rubble, though those companies have since distanced themselves from the incident.

Even labels that acknowledge their strong presence in Bangladesh have been loath to protect workers if it meant cutting into their company's bottom line. Retailers and brands including Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), H&MSears (SHLD), Gap (GPS) and Tommy Hilfiger, part of PVH (PVH), all produce clothes there.

In 2011, those companies were presented with a safety plan that would ditch government inspections 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 paid for by contributions from the companies of up to $500,000 per year.

Those contributions -- along with the "legally binding" portion of that plan -- made retailers including Wal-Mart, H&M and Gap nix it and, in some cases, go with internal audits, training films and inspections. Since then, the Tasreen blaze and 41 other "fire incidents" have occurred at Bangladesh textile facilities, with the incidents beyond Tasreen killing nine people and injuring 660 more.

Walt Disney (DIS) responded to those reports by pulling its textile business out of Bangladesh altogether, but the reactions from other companies have ranged from awkward denials to post-mortem promises. Until companies make a more concerted effort to show they prize worker safety more than $10 jeans, PR folks say their backpedaling and promises will work only if Western buyers have short memories of these incidents. Memories tend to have more staying power, however, when there's a growing body count attached to them.

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May 6, 2013 4:29PM

Holy Shiite Batman !!!  Ya mean ta tell me there's 14 MILLION (YES EDITH, THAT'S FOURTEEN MILLION) bona-fide Mental Midgets a wanderin bout freely in this good ol' US of A. Tell me it taint so... Tell me it taint....  

This sounds like another job for the Viagrating Oxymoronator unbiased opinion...  AKA.. FKn PIG

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