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Martin Moylan, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published August 08 2013

Target, other retailers struggle with unsafe foreign factories

MINNEAPOLIS – Much of the clothing Americans buy is made overseas in developing nations, where workers often toil long hours in unsafe factories, risking their health and sometimes their lives for a few dollars a day.

Recent tragedies in overseas factories have turned the spotlight on the role Target, Wal-Mart and other retail giants play in these working conditions. Consumers and corporate executives are talking more about the Third World factories they rely on.

“We want to make sure we are doing the right thing in building safe, sustainable workplaces wherever we do business,” said Daniel Duty, Target’s vice president for global affairs.

The company enforces hour, wage, safety and other standards for some 3,500 of its vendor factories. It’s a challenge in developing nations where workplace safety and other standards, if they exist, are often not enforced by factory owners or government authorities, Duty said.

That’s especially true in Bangladesh where more than 1,000 Bangladesh garment workers perished in April when the Rana Plaza collapsed.

The country’s a fast-rising apparel supplier for retailers. The United States imported about $4.5 billion worth of clothing from that country last year, though Target and Wal-Mart have declared the safety record of factories there flat out unacceptable. The retailers are part of The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, an industry group that vows to improve working conditions.

Target does business with about 35 factories in Bangladesh, importing a relatively moderate $100 million to $150 million worth of goods a year.

The Rana Plaza tragedy put Bangladesh in focus, but it could quickly shift to some other country with cheap labor. A factory fire in Pakistan claimed more than 250 workers last fall. In Cambodia, there’s been a surge in garment industry strikes over pay and working conditions. In China, Apple continues to face allegations it relies on contractors that exploit and endanger workers.

Labor groups say those incidents are emblematic of unsafe and often fatal conditions in garment factories.

Target did not do business with the Bangladesh factory that collapsed or the one that had a fire in which about 100 workers died, Duty said.

But a 2010 fire in a supplier’s Bangladesh factory prompted the company to do longer inspections and focus on fire safety, according to a 2012 company report.

“That’s when we really started to enhance the standards that we have for inspections and audits,” Duty added. “We lengthened the time of our inspections and added fire specifically to the inspection process.”

Bangladesh is not the only country where Target finds factories need monitoring. Last year, Target said it found problems with excessive working hours in a quarter of the Chinese factories that it audited and in a fifth of factories in South and Southeast Asia, Egypt and Turkey. There were wage problems in two-thirds of Chinese factories.

In two dozen factories around the world, Target found evidence of child or forced labor or other transgressions that prompted it to stop doing business with the factories.

Despite the concerns over working conditions, some economists advise retailers not to flee developing countries.

“Stay in there and work it through so that all the benefits of economic growth that come with sourcing from developing countries become available to these poor locations,” said Tufts University economics professor Drusilla Brown. Brown is working with the International Labor Organization, an arm of the United Nations that works with governments, employers and workers to set labor standards.