Penney says it’s changing Bangladesh contracting practices; Dickies says that information is proprietary

Posted Tuesday, May. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The scorecard is mixed on how U.S. brands are dealing with the garment factory disasters that have claimed thousands of lives in Bangladesh since 2005, including more than 1,000 in a recent building collapse.

In North Texas, JC Penney and Williamson-Dickie, owner of the Dickies brand, are examples of the very different tacks being taken.

Penney confirmed last week that it is tightening its contracting guidelines in Bangladesh following the tragic building collapse. However, Dickies has remained publicly silent on what it is or isn’t doing.

The Plano-based department store chain has begun implementing a policy that would prohibit contractors from operating out of multiuse buildings, as was the case with Rana Plaza, which collapsed in April, killing more than 1,000 workers. Joe Fresh and Mango garments, brands sold at Penney, were found in the rubble. Penney goods were made in a building that burned down in 2010.

“Standards of this policy are being finalized now and we plan to fully implement [the policy] across the company's entire supplier base,” spokeswoman Daphne Avila said. “The company has already begun phasing out the use of factories in multiuse buildings in Bangladesh and is expected to be completed later this month.”

Penney is also changing its scorecard for rating workplaces. It will now give more weight to structural and electrical inspections on the social compliance checklist to determine a particular factory’s level of risk, Avila said.

Fort Worth-based Dickies, citing a longtime practice of not disclosing what it considers proprietary information as a privately held company, declined to say if it has changed any of its practices in Bangladesh. Spokeswoman Misty Otto confirmed that it had clothing made at Tazreen Fashions, but that its contract had ended before a November fire there that claimed 112 lives.

In a statement, the company said, “It is standard operating procedure at Williamson-Dickie to ensure the global vendors and suppliers we work with provide a safe work environment in accordance with all applicable laws and fair labor practices.” It would not elaborate.

Bangladeshi worker advocates discovered pairs of Dickies jeans in the burnt-out Tazreen factory but it was unclear if they were from an old production run or if Tazreen was working on an order that another plant had farmed out — a common practice in the country and a dilemma for well-meaning, but unwitting, foreign companies.

Robert Rasberry, who teaches ethics at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business, is willing to give Dickies the benefit of the doubt.

“I imagine they are doing a lot of investigating behind the scenes to see if they had a supplier within the fire zones in Bangladesh,” Rasberry said.

What is clear is that some American consumers are becoming increasingly aware that there might be blood on their bargain-priced jeans and blouses. There are growing demands for a clearer picture of how clothing is sourced since 97.7 percent of garments are now made overseas, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, where Dickies CEO, Philip Williamson, is chairman.

“As many of the U.S.-based businesses have relied heavily on the outsourcing of garment manufacturing to Bangladesh, it is increasingly important that these businesses be transparent in regards to their use of certain suppliers and their efforts at ensuring the safety of the facilities,” said Suzanne Carter, a professor at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business where she teaches strategic management.

Neither Dickies nor Penney has offered compensation to families of those killed in plants where they had clothing sewn. And they are not alone. Not a single U.S. firm has stepped forward to help out their survivors, said Liana Foxvog of the Washington-based watchdog group, the International Labor Rights Forum.

Do they have any legal or moral obligation to help in this way?

Yes, said Rasberry.

“If Dickies was in using these firms at this point, they have a primary responsibility” to provide aid, Rasberry said. “If the fire hadn’t occurred and they had plans to use them in the future, they also have a responsibility to help. As a caring company that has a desire to present clothing to customers as high quality, they have a responsibility to help that community in some meaningful way.”

And if they hadn’t planned to do business again with Tazreen, the SMU professor said, Dickies should still act — “out of compassion.”

“If I was a leader of a company that did business in Bangladesh, I would ask, ‘How can my organization help?’”

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

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