Update: VF/Optimum Fashion (Bangladesh)

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova
Date:March 14, 2014
Re:Update: VF/Optimum Fashion (Bangladesh)

On February 20, 2014, the WRC conducted an on-site follow up inspection at Optimum Fashion, a collegiate apparel factory in Narayanganj, Bangladesh that is producing goods for VF Corporation and its subsidiary, VF Imagewear. I am sorry to have to report that the results are discouraging.

Last autumn, the WRC reported to you on the findings of a comprehensive fire safety inspection we conducted at Optimum. You can see our report here. The inspection uncovered a host of serious fire safety hazards, any of which could be the cause of injury or death to workers in this facility: lack of adequate fire exits, lack of fire doors and fire separation, lockable doors on exit routes, inadequate emergency lighting, an inadequate fire alarm system, and other violations.

We provided VF with detailed recommendations for corrective action on October 14, 2013, and asked VF to supply a corrective action plan. VF acknowledged the violations and pledged to implement the corrective actions, but stated that a corrective action plan would be delayed because of other building safety inspections scheduled at the factory. The WRC accepted that a modest delay was reasonable in providing a plan. However, VF did not provide a corrective action plan for more than four months. The WRC received VF’s plan on February 20, three hours before our follow-up visit to the factory.

The recommendations made to VF by the WRC called for the elimination of most of the identified hazards by January 14, 2014. VF’s corrective action plan, provided to the WRC more than one month after that date, cited 30 necessary corrective actions, of which two were reported to have been completed. These involved moving furniture and a machine that were blocking exit routes. VF claimed that three other actions were “partially completed.” The plan did not call for completion of most of the remaining 25 actions, such as the installing of fire doors, for an additional three to eight months.

The WRC’s follow-up inspection revealed what VF’s corrective action plan belatedly acknowledged: there has been very little progress in addressing the fire hazards at Optimum Fashion.

The factory still does not have adequate fire exits; there are no fire doors; there is no fire separation; the interior exit route is unprotected and ends with a lockable door; there is not adequate emergency lighting; and there is not an adequate alarm system. In one crucial area, the factory is even more dangerous than when the WRC first inspected it: management added large, unprotected door openings to the external exit stair, making it more likely that this stair will be unusable in a fire (because it will be exposed to heat and smoke from within the building).

There were also problems in some of the areas where VF reported that remediation was complete or partially complete. As VF reported, the factory did move a checking machine, a panel, and some furniture that were partially blocking exit routes. The factory also removed switches on each floor that allowed emergency lights to be turned off (emergency lights must not have an accessible manual off switch, lest they be turned off at the wrong time). Unfortunately, the factory left in place a manual off switch on the first floor that can kill the entire system and is accessible to anyone walking into the building. Management placed emergency lights on the external exit stair, but they are not sufficiently bright for the purpose. VF reported that management had, per the WRC’s recommendation, instituted a policy to make sure that all lockable doors on exit routes are locked in the open position when the building is occupied, to ensure that people can get out in an emergency. However, none of the doors were locked in the open position at the time of the WRC visit.

VF cites challenges in procuring certain safety systems as a reason why some corrective actions have been delayed. If strong progress were being made in general, with some deficiencies or delays due to procurements issues, VF’s excuse would be plausible. This is not the case.

Given the serious nature of the hazards identified, and given VF’s obligations under university codes of conduct, the company’s poor performance at Optimum Fashion is difficult to understand. VF has been in Bangladesh for many years and is aware of the grave fire safety risks in many of the country’s garment factories. It has seen 29 workers killed in one of its supplier factories and has seen a fire at another (this one producing collegiate apparel) in which half a million units of product were destroyed, with casualties avoided only because the factory was unoccupied at the time. VF is also a company with substantial resources; it describes itself as follows: “VF is an $11 billion apparel and footwear powerhouse, with an incredibly diverse, international portfolio of brands and products….With our expertise in both the art and science of apparel, we have built a sustainable base for continued long-term success.” VF’s failure to bring about meaningful progress on fire safety at Optimum is not the result of inadequate resources or knowledge.

One additional note: On the morning of the WRC’s return to the factory, VF informed the WRC that it has ceased producing university logo apparel at Optimum Fashion and that it now produces no collegiate apparel in Bangladesh. VF continues to use the factory for the production of non-university apparel and has more than 50 other contract factories in Bangladesh.

VF, which has disclosed university production in Bangladesh every year for the past decade, says its decision to stop producing university product in Bangladesh is unrelated to policies adopted by some universities requiring licensees to sign the Safety Accord.

We will update you on this case as developments warrant. As always, please let me know if you have any questions or wish to discuss any aspect of this update. 

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW, 5th Floor 
Washington DC 20005 
ph  202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
[email protected]