Inspectors came and went from a Wal-Mart-certified factory in Guangdong province in China, approving its production of more than $2 million in specialty items that would land on Wal-Mart’s shelves in time for Christmas.
But unknown to the inspectors, none of the playful items, including reindeer suits and Mrs. Claus dresses for dogs, that were supplied to Wal-Mart had been manufactured at the factory. Instead, Chinese workers sewed the goods — which had been ordered by the Quaker Pet Group, a company based in New Jersey — at a rogue factory that had not gone through the certification process set by Wal-Mart for labor, worker safety or quality, according to documents and interviews with officials involved.
To receive approval for shipment to Wal-Mart, a Quaker subcontractor just moved the items over to the approved factory, where they were presented to inspectors as though they had been stitched together there and never left the premises.
Soon after the merchandise reached Wal-Mart stores, it began falling apart.
Fifteen hundred miles to the west, the Rosita Knitwear factory in northwestern Bangladesh — which made sweaters for companies across Europe — passed an inspection audit with high grades. A team of four monitors gave the factory hundreds of approving check marks. In all 12 major categories, including working hours, compensation, management practices and health and safety, the factory received the top grade of “good.” “Working Conditions — No complaints from the workers,” the auditors wrote.
Ten months after that inspection, Rosita’s workers rampaged through the factory in February 2012, vandalizing its machinery and accusing management of reneging on promised raises, bonuses and overtime pay. Some claimed that they had been sexually harassed or beaten by guards. Not a hint of those grievances was reported in the audit.
As Western companies overwhelmingly turn to low-wage countries far away from corporate headquarters to produce cheap apparel, electronics and other goods, factory inspections have become a vital link in the supply chain of overseas production.
An extensive examination by The New York Times found that inspections are often so superficial that they omit the most fundamental workplace safeguards like fire escapes.
And even when inspectors are tough, factory managers find ways to trick them and hide serious violations, like child labor or locked exit doors. Dangerous conditions cited in the audits frequently take months to correct, often with little enforcement or follow-through to guarantee compliance.
Dara O’Rourke, a global supply chain expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said little had improved in 20 years of factory monitoring, especially with increased use of the cheaper “check the box” inspections at thousands of factories. “The auditors are put under greater pressure on speed, and they’re not able to keep up with what’s really going on in the apparel industry,” he said. “We see factories and brands passing audits but failing the factories’ workers.”
The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 workers in April, intensified international scrutiny on factory monitoring and pressured the world’s biggest retailers to sign onto agreements to tighten inspection standards and upgrade safety measures.
While many groups consider the accords a significant advance, some longtime auditors and labor groups voice skepticism that inspection systems alone can ensure a safe workplace. After all, they say, the number of audits at Bangladesh factories has steadily increased as the country has become one of the world’s largest garment exporters, and still 1,800 workers there have died in workplace disasters in the last 10 years.
“We’ve been auditing factories in Bangladesh for 20 years, and I wonder, ‘Why aren’t these things changing? Why aren’t things getting better?’” said Rachelle Jackson, the director of sustainability and innovation at Arche Advisors, a monitoring group based in California.