And even inspections conducted at authorized factories can be deeply flawed. When NTD Apparel, a contractor for Walmart that is based in Montreal, hired a firm to inspect the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh before 112 workers died in a fire in November, the monitors’ questionnaire asked whether the factory had the proper number of fire extinguishers and smoke detectors on each floor. However, it did not call for checking whether the factory had fire escapes or enclosed, fireproof stairways, which safety experts say could have saved lives.
Sajeev Jesudas, president of UL Verification Services, which conducted the Tazreen audit, said inspecting for fire escapes and fireproof stairways was “the responsibility of the local building inspectors.” Bangladesh has been faulted for having far too few officials to inspect factories.
Greg Gardner, the chief executive of Arche Advisors, said Western retailers and brands often seek different levels of audits. Some, like Levi’s and Patagonia, want rigorous — and costly — audits, while others prefer limited, inexpensive audits that will not jeopardize relationships with favored suppliers.
Audits can be very brief. A single inspector might visit a 1,000-employee factory for six to eight hours to review all types of manufacturing issues, like wages, child labor or toxic chemicals. Some auditors receive only five days of training, whereas the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires three years of training and experience assisting inspectors before employees can lead an inspection of a sizable factory in the US.
In the Rosita case, after the workers went on their rampage, the Western companies that bought the factory’s knitwear grew alarmed. So Rosita’s owner, South Ocean, a conglomerate based in Hong Kong, commissioned a new inspection.
That inspection, conducted by Verite, which is based in Massachusetts, was a scathing broadside. Verite’s monitors found “ongoing physical abuse” and “verbal and psychological harassment,” with managers compelling workers who arrived late to stand for “many hours without rest.”
Verite’s three-day inspection found errors in calculating wages, chemical containers labeled only in English and unreasonably high production quotas for which workers were disciplined or fired for not meeting.
The inspectors noted that workers “often face harsh treatment,” including jeering from managers if they requested sick leave or annual leave. The monitors also found that managers had fired employees for missing work because of a death in the family and that security guards had beaten workers involved in union and protest activities.
Verite chief executive Daniel Viederman said the earlier inspection, performed by a major monitoring firm, SGS, demonstrated the shortcomings of checklist audits. The SGS inspection involved a one-day visit, largely seeking yes-no answers, probably for a modest fee.
He noted that SGS had interviewed employees only inside the factory, where workers were often unlikely to speak candidly, and not outside — for instance, at bus stops or at home, where workers might open up.
Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, was shocked when he read the SGS inspection report for Rosita.