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Big Retailers Dodge Blame as Local Owners Face Murder Charges

What responsibility do western brands owe victims after disasters expose 'murkiness and lack of accountability in the global supply chain for clothes'?

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Clothing printed with Disney images found in the remains of the Tazreen garment factory near Dhakaa, Bangladesh after a fire killed over 100 workers in November 2012. (Photo: Andrew Biraj/ Reuters)As a Bangladeshi court hands down charges of murder to local factory owners and managers for their role in a sweatshop fire that killed 112 workers in Bangladesh last year, major western retailers continue to sidestep any responsibility for a series of recent disasters exposing the egregious safety lapses and subsequent deaths that repeatedly occur in their supply chain.

A Dhaka court on Tuesday issued arrest warrants for the owners and four managers of the Tazreen Fashion factory, which produces clothing for over a dozen western brands including Walmart.

The Hindu reports:

Judge Washim Sheikh issued the warrant for owners Delawar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akter, and four other managers of the Tazreen Fashion factory.

Thirteen people have been charged with culpable homicide. The owners and four managers have absconded, six others secured bail and one person is in jail pending trial, said prosecution lawyer Anwarul Kabir.

Sheikh gave the order after declaring the owners and four managers "fugitives" for failing to appear in court over charges laid by police earlier this month, said prosecutor Anwarul Kabir, who added that all the accused face a maximum life term in prison.

Following the disaster, survivors said that the factory managers "did not allow the workers to escape the fire, saying it was a routine fire drill," Dhaka police chief Habibur Rahman told AFP at the time, adding that many said they had even padlocked doors.

Police last week said this case may possibly be "the first time a garment plant owner has been charged over a fire" at one of the nation's 4,500 garment factories, where deadly accidents are common.

Five months following the Tazreen blaze, 1,129 workers were killed in the collapse of the the Rana Plaza garment factory warehouse also in Bangladesh.

A New York Times investigation by Spanish correspondent Jim Yardley published Monday explores how western brands have managed to "sidestep blame" for the egregious safety violations and subsequent deaths that are so common in their production lines.

The piece tells the story of the Spanish clothing company, Mango, and how they have eschewed any responsibility for the Rana Plaza disaster because at the time they claimed to not have yet “formalized a commercial relationship” with one of the factories—despite evidence of orders made and clothing samples found among the rubble.

Eight months after the deadly collapse, "the question is what responsibility Mango and other brands should bear toward the victims of Rana Plaza, a disaster that exposed the murkiness and lack of accountability in the global supply chain for clothes," Yardley writes.

He continues:

For global brands and retailers, Rana Plaza has forced a reckoning over how to reconcile the mismatched pieces in their supply chains. Technology and investment are transforming the upper end of the industry, enabling Mango and other brands to increase sales, manage global inventories with pinpoint precision and introduce new clothes faster than ever — all as consumers now expect to see new things every time they visit a store.

But these brands depend on factories in developing countries like Bangladesh, where wages are very low and the pressure to work faster and cheaper has spawned familiar problems: unsafe buildings, substandard work conditions and repeated wage and labor violations. Consumers know little about these factories, even as global brands promise that their clothes are made in safe environments.

Under intense international pressure, four brands agreed last week to help finance a $40 million compensation fund for workers and family members of victims of the collapse.

Primark, El Corte Ingles, Loblaw and Bonmarche, who along with other retailers had their clothes stitched at the factory, struck the agreement with manufacturers and labor activists.

Neither Mango nor any U.S. brand has agreed to contribute to the fund.

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