Corruption and the fate of the people who make your clothes

Let the buyer beware: cheap clothing sometimes comes at a high price. Since the fire that killed 112 clothing workers in a Bangladesh factory last month,  the big global retailers supplied by the factory are being asked what they do to make sure the products we buy come from safe factories?

How much is corruption a factor ?

At Transparency International, we often say “corruption kills”, especially if governments fail to enforce safety standards.

Corruption by collusion or omission, and injustice by weak law enforcement, are big problems in most of the countries that make the clothes you wear.

In many factory fires, reports and allegations later emerged that corruption allowed the factory to stay in business without having proper fire exits or respect for safety standards.

This is not Bangladesh’s first deadly fire this year, nor is the problem is confined to Bangladesh. Similar tragedies have occurred in other countries where the perception is that corruption is a high risk: China, Vietnam, Mexico, India and Pakistan – all countries with corruption problems according to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2012 (see table above).

A risk of public sector corruption opens the door to several corrupt ways to keep an unsafe factory operating:

Bribery or collusion

In a tragic, and all too common, example of negligent approach to safety inspection, the factory in Dhaka had been cleared by safety checks a month before the tragedy. Corruption may be one of the reasons why regulations are flouted – and facilities get their seal of approval to keep operating. Sometimes, bribery does not take place but weak enforcement of safety standards by public officials leaves workers exposed.

Factory owners can bribe officials to avoid or by-pass safety checks. Officials and factory owners have too cosy a relationship. A Human Rights Watch report on Dhaka’s tanneries warned

inspectors prioritize good relations with managers and give them advance notice before an inspection.”

adding that the Ministry of Labour’s Inspection Department has just 18 inspectors to monitor an estimated 100,000 factories in Dhaka.

Undue influence on policy:

Why don’t governments put more resources behind worker safety and implementing policies to protect them? According to the New York Times, in the Bangladesh parliament

roughly two-thirds of the  members belong to the country’s three biggest business associations. At least 30 factory owners or their family members hold seats in Parliament, about 10 percent of the total.”

Lack of protection for whistleblowers

What happens when workers speak up about unsafe conditions? In the case of Bangladeshi trade unionist Aminul Islam, harassment, torture and murder, with rights groups saying he had been harassed for some time. Cases like this discourage others from reporting problems, and it is up to governments to make sure whistleblowers are protected from reprisals.

Lack of access to information

How about the multinationals supplied by the factories in these countries? Our reports have called on them to be more open about their subsidiaries and anti-corruption programmes.

For example, the Clean Cloths Campaign are criticising investigators of a factory fire in Pakistan for not sharing information about who buys clothes from the factory with the victims or workers’ groups.

A boy soaks hides in a pit of diluted chemicals in a Dhaka tannery. Click on the image to see other photographs of Dhaka’s tanneries. © 2012 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

Global clothing brands should realise the true message of Corruption Perceptions Index. 

The burden lies in the failure of the governments to challenge impunity and upon businessmen who are in a desperate game of making quick money by colluding with powers that be, in a context where business is increasingly synonymous with politics.

Nevertheless, do you think it is enough for buyers of garments from these countries like Walmart to cancel their order after such deadly accidents have taken place?

Should other suppliers of your clothes follow such example of chopping off the head for the headache and thereby punish the garments workers, 90 per cent of whom are women, for the corrupt activity and impunity of the high and mighty?

The Corruption Perceptions Index is not intended to scare business and investment away from countries with a low rank, its lets them know the context in which they will operate. It should remind them of the importance of conducting business with a sense of responsibility and integrity.

When you are confronted with the news of such tragic loss of lives for corruption don’t you consider it your responsibility to ask whether importers of those products could also do more to ensure stricter compliance to safety standards rather than rapidly dumping business partners when tragedies occur but playing safe by omission the rest of the time?

Have you looked at your clothes and checked out where they are made? Perhaps Bangladesh or Sri Lanka or Honduras?

Now look at where they score on the Corruption Perceptions Index, and tell us your reaction in the comment area below.

Carrousel image: Flickr / Creative commons: Dave Wilson Cumbria

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Ifthekar Zaman

About Ifthekar Zaman

Ifthekar Zaman is Executive Director at Transparency International Bangladesh.

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17 Responses to Corruption and the fate of the people who make your clothes

  1. Thomas Coombes
    Thomas Coombes 7 December 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    I’ve got “made in China” – that 39 / 100. strangely, i cant find “made in” labels on most of my clothes today.

  2. Thomas Coombes
    Thomas Coombes 7 December 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Pure coincidence: put TI Sri Lanka just gave an integrity award to a customs officer who stood up to death threats, including from a garment manufacturer: http://www.tisrilanka.org/?p=10339

  3. Rachel Davies
    Rachel 7 December 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    This is really interesting. I’ve only ever considered the forced labour and sweatshop aspects to the clothing chain, but this adds another layer.

    My clothes today are ‘made in UAE’ and ‘made in portugal’

    I’d be interested to know how people think we should respond to to the issue of buying clothes which have been made in factories where corruption is involved and the workers suffer. I agree with the suggestion in the article that companies should ensure stricter compliance to safety standards rather than dumping the factory altogether.

    What part does the average consumer have to play in all of this?

  4. Jose Fontao 7 December 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    @Rachel: if your clothes are made in Portugal you can feel good about it. Even though producing clothes isn’t a highly paid job, all the workers in the industry have legal protection, they are unionized and they have full coverage for health care.

    This corruption index is definitely eye-opening and I’ll consider it when buying clothes.

  5. Karuna Kishore Chakraborty 9 December 2012 at 5:35 am #

    Very much grateful to honourable writer for his courageous analysis and perfectly
    indentifying the corelation between corruption and unexpected human loss in garment industries. The concerned Governemnts should take lessons and undertake immediate measures to stop such killings to protect this potential sector for countries welfare, growth and development.The buyers should also pressuraize respective Govts for taking extra-ordinary and committed drives to stop corruption. If corruption controls then they will export more. And, I think by exporting good products to importer countries around the globe the exporter countries witll earn more if they can able to stop corrution. Stop Corrption, Save Nation, Save our vibrant contributors of development – the garment workers.

  6. Sobnom 10 December 2012 at 7:32 am #

    Only buyers can stop corruption in the garments sector.

  7. Soumya Saxena
    soumya 10 December 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    It is true that only people can stop the corruption, and it takes a lot of awareness. Government will definitely want more trade and foreign investment in their country, but it is the people who need to decide at what cost do they want this.

    There are just two words which can make all the difference: awareness and non-cooperation

    The power is in the hand of the buyer to refuse to buy clothes which are manufactured unethically.

  8. Annette Jaitner
    Annette Jaitner 10 December 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    Unfortunately, Fair Trade products or Clean Clothing only reach a very limited market. Still, a Corruption Clean Products campaign would be interesting. Possible as well would be a ISO (International Standards Organisation) tag for companies supporting transparent and corruption free production – providing an acknowledged incentive for companies for “clean” and transparent production.
    Nevertheless, in my view, as long as top-managers are rewarded for maximising profit, workers – as one input in the production chain – will bear the brunt of unclean production.
    Only through promoting business integrity and clean business standards (like the Business Actain Against Corruption BAAC does), and only when top-managers are rewarded for maximising social responsibility and for following and adhering to clean, fair and transparent production, will the work environment change for the workers.
    Lots to do, let us join forces!

  9. Thomas Coombes
    Thomas Coombes 20 December 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    another article on this topic by Iftekhar and Janet Keeping, Transparency International Canada, here
    http://www.troymedia.com/2012/12/20/bangladeshi-factory-fires-corruption-and-the-rule-of-law/

  10. Bolivar Javier 29 December 2012 at 12:27 am #

    THIS IS SOMETHING THAT DOMINICAN REPUBLIC NEED, HARD LAW TO FIGHT THE GOVERMENT CORRUPTS. LIKE THE PRESENT AND PAST GOVERMENT . MR. LEONEL FERNADEZ HAS CONVERT THE COUNTRY IN WON PROPERTY, AND CITIZEN CAN’T FIND A LAW THAT DEFENSE THEM. MR . LEONEL HAS TO TAKE TO INTERNATIONAL COURT TO BE JUDGE FOR ILEGAL ENRISHMENT.

  11. Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay 1 October 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    If we seriously desire for a corruption-free society, decent political atmosphere, has to put genuine commitment at our own end, as you know most of the communities (such as Bengali or Tamil) in this sub-continent are covered by ‘Culture of Poverty’ (hopelessness), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption in this society at heart, decaying general quality of life, bad Politico-Governance, poor work place, weak mother language, continuous consumption of common Social Space. We love to become parents only by self-procreation (mindlessly & blindfold supported by lame excuses, driven by the very animal instinct) depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a caring society, fearless & dignified living. Never search for other positive alternative gesture, adopting reasonable values for a passionate way of parenthood, deliberately stop giving birth to any child him/herself here till it improves up to the mark, co-parenting children those are born out of extreme poverty, instead. Introduce reasonableness in way of life among Commoners. If a pure freedom is desired, from vicious cycle of poverty, rotten capitalism need to involve ourselves in ‘Production of space’ movement, quality Politics would certainly come up. – SB, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah -711 101, India.

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