100 years of magical thinking

Yet another overseas factory burns, killing workers. Have we learned nothing in the last hundred years? Considering the Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911), all we’ve done is push tragedy farther from us -where we can conveniently forget about it, competing as it does with a new week’s news.

I don’t know what incenses me more, here’s a partial list:

I think I’ll run with the last one because it hits closer to home.

I know how this plays out. Many of you rest easy because your offshore factory is small [you don’t have the scale to hire a larger factory so you feel you’ve dodged a bullet]. Tragedy of this scale is unlikely to affect you because your factory has a lot fewer workers and worst case, they can jump out of the single story (ground floor) windows. What this really means is that the innumerable small factory fires that occur each year, killing however many workers annually far in excess of this most recent one, don’t get the same air time. Five here, seven there, who is counting?

We don’t know how many die in clothing factory fires each year but 80% of Bangladeshi exports consist of sewn products; it is the single largest segment of their economy. The BSS (Bangladesh news agency) says that 6,000 of their people die each year in factory fires. Presuming the export industry is no more magically protected than other segments of their economy, this could mean thousands of people in Bangladesh die in export business related factory fires. Again, these are totals gleaned from the multitude of small fires, death counts too low to attract international media attention -and this is just one country. We collectively mourn the tragedy of 112 deaths; where is the outrage over 6,000? Who knows how many there are worldwide?

The only difference between many start ups and established firms is but a matter of scale. How many start ups aspire to meeting MOQ required to hire an offshore facility where costs are so much lower? How many start ups are equally uninformed about their legal obligations? How many people think that they can avoid a sweatshop by hiring another small business?

I know that running a business can be overwhelming; willfully and selectively ignoring details competing for your attention can become a sanity saving strategy. You tell yourself you’re not culpable if you didn’t know –CPSIA is one item that comes to mind. You hope the government won’t hold your feet to the flame if you didn’t. It is your job to know. If you don’t, you’re no different from that factory owner who didn’t know he was supposed to have emergency exits. The scary thing is, maybe nobody told him -so why was that? His people knew he wouldn’t listen or he wouldn’t want to know? How many people have told you things you didn’t want to hear? None? What have you tuned out? How many times has someone told you what you needed to hear but you went elsewhere rather than to deal with a nag?  You can’t outsource your responsibility.  The buck stops with you.

I don’t think there is a fail safe. Larger firms are not so much more inept than you are; they have formidable resources and competencies to vett facilities yet problems still arise. You don’t have the funding, access or compliance resources they do so how are you magically protected? Unless you’re lucky enough to develop a relationship with a good facility (that you are not going to find in any online directories), you either need to keep your production at arm’s length or you need to start your own factory.

The buck must stop somewhere. If your name is on it, it is your responsibility.

You need to start manufacturing yourself. Period.
Why you should start your own sewing factory pt.1
Why you should start your own sewing factory pt.2
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.1
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.2
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.3
How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt.1
How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt.2
How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt.3

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  1. Natasha E says:

    I have to admit that when I first hear this story I cried. Do we as consumers realize that we are putting people’s lives at risk so we can have the “right” to buy cheap rags. Business are somewhat to blame for sure but if we are constantly demanding to pay less and less every year they are going to adjust to meet our demands. If we only purchase something at 75% off that 75% saved has to come from somewhere.

  2. Karen says:

    I live in the Philippines and worked in garment factories for nearly 20 years. As a buying agent, we would continuously be vetting factories to make sure they complied with labor laws as well as safety standards. Whilst there are some issues you can give factories time to fix ( too much overtime for instance) others should mean that you immediately stop production there. No fire escapes, blocked fire escapes or fire escapes which open the wrong way are definitely reasons to immediately stop production. Apparently compliance offices had already inspected the premises and they should have stopped production immediately. That in itself would not necessarily have saved these workers lives, but it might have forced the owners/managers of the company to fix the issue.

  3. Natasha – I agree. We work in this industry that perpetuates lies of glamour and luxury, while workers are not properly cared for or properly compensated. It’s hard to educate people when they have been a part of a ‘cheaper at any cost’ society. But, we must strive to make this industry better. We have to hold ourselves accountable, socially and morally. I’d rather not make any money if I had to compromise what I thought to be right in my business.

  4. TPN says:

    This is why I don’t buy stuff that isn’t made in Australia. I’ve been sewing my own stuff for 3+ years now but even before that I didn’t buy things made in countries that lack trade unions and safety, health and environmental regulations. I believe that the buck actually stops with the customer. If everyone refuses to buy things made under shitty conditions then things will cease to be made under shitty conditions. Unfortunately most consumers aren’t that aware.

  5. Sarah_H. says:

    Lest you think that dangerous workplaces exist only “over there” let me tell you that I once worked in a plant in Dallas where my pattern table was right beside a padlocked emergency door. I almost lost my job just asking about it, and I was told that the lock was electrically set to open “automatically” in an emergency. This was in the late 1980’s. I do not doubt that it exists in this country today, somewhere that a plant owner is more distrustful of his employees’ honesty than he is mindful of their safety.

  6. Leah Barrett says:

    Locking factory doors (sometimes just to ensure workers work longer hours) and not knowing about fire exits are the responsibility of factory owners and the Bangladeshi govt. WRAP offers free or very low cost (as far as I know) fire safety seminars there to help with this systemic problem with safety.
    Buyers/sourcing agents shoulder a lot of responsibility here. Not only turning a blind eye, but pressuring small factories for ridiculously lower prices, impossible deadlines, changing specifications, rejecting goods on the basis of little or no evidence of quality issues, all sets the tone for these slave-like conditions.
    As far as a consumers responsibility goes, I agree buying cheap helps no one. The planet today and tomorrow is asking us to buy less and with more care for everyone in the supply chain.

  7. Dia in MA says:

    Sarah_H, I believe you. Back in the 70’s I worked a summer job in a factory where one of the 2 doors out was constantly locked after a couple of new hires stole some of the finished goods via the back door. If you want to keep the job, you shut up, hunker down, and work. If that factory was running on as thin a shoestring as the one I worked in, the middle managers may have been paranoid about that sort of thing. It is an attempt to save the business that gets deadly when fire breaks out. Fire safety takes a back row to the mechanic who keeps the machines running with that type of thinking. (Come to think of it, the boss owed the mechanic back pay too.)

  8. Natasha E says:

    The automatic padlock thing is funny because I remember when I was getting my LA County Firecard and the former fire marshall suggested checking all the fire escapes and seeing if they opened and if they didn’t to call LA Fire and they’d come and open them with there universal door opener which I assumed mean there was some sort master key but apparently it means an axe.

  9. Frances says:

    To the person who only buys things made in Australia, where do you get your fabric from? Or your sewing machine? I think it would be nice to be able to source everything close to home, but it’s impossible. We are brainwashed about low prices so we are now convinced that low prices are our right. (In 1967, I bought an Elna sewing machine here in Toronto for $250. It was Swiss made and this was when the Sw.Fr. was worth 25¢. Think what it would cost now when the franc is worth so much more. But now I can easily buy a sewing machine for the same price although it isn’t made in Switzerland).

  10. Russell White says:

    This incident has made me so mad and what bothers me the most is the fact that the companies (WalMart, Disney, Sears) that had work in these factories denied knowing about the conditions or the fact that their goods were subcontracted to this factory.

    I have worked for major companies–including Sears–and worked in the sourcing departments (I have personally sourced and have done full factory inspections in hundreds of factories all over the world–including Bangladesh). All of the above companies (and I have read their sourcing and vendor manuals) have stated policies that full factory inspections must be done for all facilities that are handling their products.

    PLUS, these companies have full time inspectors that must inspect the goods while they are in the production lines being cut, sewn, finished and packed. All of the above companies also have offices overseas in various locations with staffing that travels to the factories. (When I was at Sears we had offices in South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore, India, and Italy.) Not only do the overseas offices’ merchandisers travel to the factories, but the technical staff and QA inspectors travel to the factories that are producing the goods.

    So, something is very fishy here with the corporate offices saying they did not know that their goods were made in a factory that the order was not placed with. By the way, this is also written in their manuals and in their contracts and their purchase orders. Shipping documents would be wrong, the carton markings would be wrong, and most of all the QC inspections would not be done according to their written policies and would have to be forged to get the goods passed and accepted. Then there is the issue with TOP samples (top of production)–these items would have to come from the actual factory making the goods. There are other steps in the process of getting goods made overseas–label/hang tag orders have to be made and shipped to the factory, poly bags, hangers, lab testing–the list goes on and on.

    It takes a lot of work to fool a major company with offices overseas to have product made in a subcontracted factory. Was someone in the overseas offices taking money under the table (trust me it is done all of the time)? Was someone in corporate sourcing covering up? What the press needs to do is a full investigation with an experienced person in the import business who knows what questions to ask to find out the real story. If more of this information comes forward, then companies will stop using factories that treat humans as animals–think of chicken farms. I have seen many factories that were absolutely horrible and refused to do business with them because of their treatment to their workers.

  11. TPN says:

    @Frances: My fabric comes from overstock from local and New Zealand retailers and from op shops (i.e. used/ vintage/ second hand or harvested from other clothes). My mum lives in Asia and sometimes sends me worked fabrics from artisans/ workers co-operatives. It takes a little more effort and certainly costs more but it means I buy (a smaller amount of) high quality material. I don’t think low prices are my right at all. In fact I automatically assume when I see a low price that the item has been made from slave labour. My sewing machine is locally assembled from parts made in Japan, Korea and Singapore (the parts are machine-made, the assembling is done by humans). I don’t have so much of a problem with fabrics because most commercially-made fabric today (I’m not talking hand-looms here) is made on a very large scale by machines-even then there is always the option of buying certified fabrics with minimal environmentally impact in its production. It just costs more but it’s not like I need a huge amount-I only sew for myself.

  12. Traci Akierman says:

    @Russell White: speaking as a former reporter (albeit for small publications) I strongly urge you to share your insights with the publication of your choice to get them on the right track to investigating this further. The reporters won’t necessarily know where to look and should be happy to be pointed in the right direction.

  13. @Russel: Though I’m not aware of the exact policies and procedures, I suspected the statements on behalf of those big box retailers rushing to dis-associate their brand from the incident were far from the truth. It’s sad that your inside knowledge has now confirmed these suspicions.

  14. Frances says:

    I too found the disclaimers very suspicious. It would look good if one of the big retailers did its own investigation and published the results.
    @TPN: I didn’t mean that you yourself felt that low prices are a right. I really don’t know how you feel about such things. I meant that, in general, we have swallowed the claim that things made in developing countries mean that it make for lower prices for us and that that is good. I have been wondering for some time how we managed to set up and run a household when we had to buy things made at North American wage rates but we did. When I paid $250 for that sewing machine, it represented a considerable sum of money for me but I was willing to pay it. It would cost many times that amount at current exchange rates. And, just as a point of interest, that sewing machine is still usable although it does need a minor repair right now.

  15. Frances, I was curious so I googled.

    1 USD in 1967 had the same buying power as 6.93 USD today. (I can’t find the equivalent for Canada but I’ll assume the change was proportional.)
    1 CHF was worth about 0.2375 CAD in 1967 and 1.07 CAD today.

    So the Swiss-made machine you paid $250 for in 1967 would cost you on the order of $6,800 today.

  16. Natasha E says:

    Which sounds about right for a machine made in Switzerland since only the higher end Berninas etc are still truly Swiss made vs Swiss engineered. All the rest including mine are made in Thailand.

  17. Sarah_H. says:

    Almost exactly on the nose for price. My Bernina 630 (one down from top of the line) is over $6000, maybe more this year. The 800 series is over $8000.

  18. Mr. F-I says:

    People pay $6000 for a single sewing machine? And it comes with a table and automatic thread trimmer, right?

    Disney apparently claims that they haven’t done business with this place in a over year. While I’m reluctant to give Disney a pass, they probably have good records because of this kind of risk. It could be that the unscrupulous management at this place also engages in piracy? But if so, why doesn’t Disney think about *that* risk of doing business offshore? Or maybe they figure that whenever they get caught dealing with these places, they can claim piracy and avoid blame.

    How many of you using offshore contractors are thinking, “Compliance and safety are important to us and we EXPECT all our licensees to have in place compliant standards for fire and safety conditions at any factory that may produce our brand.” Well, that’s what Sean Combs’ ENYCE says about this place. They don’t deny doing business there, but instead they place the blame squarely on the contractor. Maybe ENYCE should sue them for breach of contract and, I don’t know, throw defamation or loss of goodwill or something in for good measure. Much of the blame does belong on the local management, but I suppose P. Diddy can’t afford the airline ticket to go check the place himself?

    6,000 people a year die in factory fires? Wow. That’s like twice the annual US death rate from ALL fires.

  19. Raya Saab says:

    Articles and events like this is the pure reason why I am a big advocate for local production. Offshore production can be valuable and great if businesses cared for social responsibility. But unfortunately, our mass-market environment triggers businesses to go offshore just in order to eliminate costs and produce economies of scale. Focusing too much on profitability, makes them ignore how important business ethics and social responsiblity are when you have workers who are trying to make a living involved. We have many experienced workers here in the U.S who are skilled and educated in their profession, but we still choose to take advantage of poorer countries who are willing to work for very cheap in order to barely make ends meet. I admire businesses who are trying to be more socially responsible such as H&M who worked with the Bangladesh government to increase wages by 80% I also admire local designers who enable manufacturers, pattern makers, and skilled workers get involved and be part of a great opportunity. As desginers, entrepreneurs, and creative individuals we need to not be a part of the typical process and really stand for social responsibility and sustainability as we are the future.

    Here is the link about H&M:

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