Wider problem revealed after Bangladesh factory fire

Laura Kuenssberg

Former Business Editor

Firefighters tackle the blaze at the garment factory in the Bangladeshi town of Gazipur. Credit: Reuters

As British companies reluctantly admitted they were linked to the latest factory fire in Bangladesh yesterday, a wider problem was revealed.

There is no question that in recent years many brands have made significantly more effort to make checks in some of the factories they use here, making hundreds of millions of pounds worth of clothes for our high streets.

Independent, unannounced inspections are much more common, more British companies are building their own teams on the ground, and since Rana Plaza, many firms have recently signed up to a major new safety standards deal, the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord.

Yet Next and Asda told us yesterday, that like other brands, while they do make their own checks in factories where finished products are made, their own routine and regular inspections don't extend down to the lower ends of the supply chain.

So, a pair of jeans you buy from a major store will increasingly likely have had the buttons sewn on, and been stitched together in a factory where there are increasingly stringent checks, that doesn't apply in the same way to the factories where the cotton was dyed or the yarn was spun.

We've been told this particular unit where fire broke out was not included in the safety deal.

But its sister factory, owned by the same company where firms did make direct orders, was on the list.

The aftermath of the garment factory fire in Gazipur. Credit: ITV News/Jess Brammar

If they want to make their own checks though, it is certainly not impossible. Primark for example told us they had decided in March to stop ordering from Aswad Composite Mills because of safety concerns. But these are far from automatic.

In fact, the new safety accord does not by and large cover the factories at the start of the clothes making process - mills, dye works.

Campaigners and companies have hailed the deal as a breakthrough. It has been a major step forward. But until the same kinds of standards extend to the bottom of the supply chain, it is hard to see how our consumers can be really confident about what they are buying really comes from.

The deputy manager listed Next, Primark, George, Gap, H&M, and Morrisons as customers who were using the factory. Credit: ITV News

It is potentially significant that both Asda, who incidentally have not signed up to the new safety deal, and Next, have both told us this latest fire could prompt a deeper look at the every step in the production process.

Asda said it is time for the Bangladeshi government to start looking at the start of the supply chain as well as the end.

Next told us once the investigation into this particular fatal accident is over, they may carry out a wider review of their whole supply chain.

It all poses a question about whether firms should really be held responsible for standards in every single stage of the production process, and whether that is realistic. Can our shoppers expect first world standards from start to finish if they know manufacturing is happening in a developing country?

There is no denying one of the difficulties for Western companies is that few place that much faith in the Bangladeshi government's basic rules and application of them. That is why increasingly, firms carry out their own audits.

The pace of change on the government's side is slow. When Rana Plaza collapsed ministers promised to introduce 200 factory inspectors. They had just 18 at the time. But six months later the industry association here told us this week, they have only managed to recruit 42.

In a country with more than three and a half thousand factories in operation, that means one person would be responsible for checking the safety of more than eighty individual factories. The industry association told us this week they knew that was not enough, but that change "is not an overnight process". With dangers still out there perhaps though it can't come soon enough.