Fri, Sep 06, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Failure of factory inspections

The global inspection regimen cannot identify and punish factory owners for unsafe conditions, authoritarian policies or illegal activities. With regulations rarely enforced and easily evaded by subcontracting, it is not clear what can be done to protect workers in the world’s workshops

By Stephanie Clifford and Steven Greenhouse  /  NY Times News Service

Supply chain experts and monitors say that far too often, factory managers play cat-and-mouse games with inspectors because they are desperate to avoid a failing grade and the loss of a lucrative stream of orders.

The experts provided real-life examples: To avoid appearing illegally overcrowded, one factory moved many machines into trucks parked outside during an inspection, a monitor said.

Whenever inspectors showed up at certain plants in China, the loudspeakers began playing a certain song to signal that underage workers should run out the back door, according to several monitors.

During inspections in India, some factories displayed elaborate charts detailing health and safety procedures that, like stage props, were transferred from one factory to another, another monitor said.

For monitoring companies with major retailing clients, the auditing regimen can be nonstop. The territory itself is daunting — 5,000 factories produce garments in Bangladesh alone.

A retailer that uses 1,000 factories worldwide might want to pay no more than US$1,000 an inspection — that could mean a one-day, check-the-box audit — instead of US$5,000 for thorough, five-day inspections. That would cost US$1 million instead of US$5 million.

“You have this intense price pressure downward on these inspection firms, turning them into a commodity business,” O’Rourke said.

Auret van Heerden, president and chief executive of the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit group that Apple uses to monitor its Foxconn factories in China, said many inspectors were too rushed.

“Many are doing a factory a day, and many auditors, more than one factory a day,” he said. “They’re on a plane and going to a new city the next day. They don’t have much time to think about it or dwell on it.”

Additional reporting by Keith Bradsher

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