17 May Ceiling Collapse at Cambodian Shoe Factory Kills 3
HONG KONG — A ceiling at a small factory making shoes on the outskirts of the capital of Cambodia collapsed on Thursday morning, killing at least two workers [update: 3 workers were killed] and underlining global worries about factory safety in poor countries.
Ken Loo, the secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said that steel beams holding up a concrete-floored storage area at mezzanine height between two buildings had given way. In addition to the two dead, nine workers were injured, three of them severely, by falling concrete, Mr. Loo said.
The collapse outside the capital, Phnom Penh, came 22 days after the collapse of a garment factory complex in Bangladesh killed at least 1,127 people and prompted an international outcry for multinational retailers to assume more responsibility for the safety of workers at their suppliers.
Mr. Loo said that the factory had been making shoes for Asics, a large Japanese athletic shoe company that is based in Kobe. Naomichi Hatori, a spokesman for Asics, confirmed that the factory, called Wing Star Shoes, made sports shoes for the company. He could not immediately say which market the shoes were shipped to, or whether the plant also made shoes for other brands.
He said Asics “offered its deepest sympathies” to the victims and their families, and that the company would consider actions to revamp safety measures at its overseas suppliers.
Telephone calls to the Wing Star Shoes offices in Kampong Speu, the Cambodian province where the accident took place, were not answered on Thursday, and an e-mail to the company drew no immediate response.
Popular with runners, Asics has been particularly successful in the American market, where it emphasizes corporate responsibility. According to the company’s Web site, the Asics name is an acronym “derived from the Latin phrase, Anima Sana In Corpore Sano — a sound mind in a sound body.”
Bradley Gordon, an American lawyer based in Phnom Penh, said that Cambodia had strong laws on safety and other issues, drafted partly with help from international advisers over the last two decades, but that regulatory enforcement is often weak. Many factories in Cambodia have only been built in the past decade, so building collapses are rare.
Mr. Gordon predicted that the Cambodian government would be genuinely worried about Thursday’s incident and would put a great deal of effort into making sure that there would be no further collapses.
“The garment industry is one of the key industries in Cambodia and is just too important to the government and the population” for a problem like this not to receive considerable scrutiny, he said.
Worker safety advocates were quick to cite Thursday’s incident as further evidence of a need for broad changes in how the West’s clothing and footwear are now made in poor countries.
“The shoe and garment industry is built upon huge profits and little concern for the well-being of their workers,” said Tessel Pauli, a spokeswoman for the Clean Clothes Campaign. “It is inherently unsafe and dangerous to work in. As long as workers are marginalized and deprived of their basic rights, the situation will not improve.”
Multinational clothing retailers have been considering Cambodia as one of several countries that could be alternatives to Bangladesh for manufacturing. Cambodia has some of the lowest labor costs in Asia, with workers earning $120 a month in salary and benefits before overtime, but that compares with just $37 in Bangladesh.
Bruce Rockowitz, the group president and chief executive at Hong Kong-based Li & Fung, one of the world’s largest sourcing companies, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, before the Cambodian factory collapse, that the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh had already taught multinationals that visual inspections of factories’ structural stability was not enough.
“We visually always inspected them, but you need true engineers,” he said.
The far lower death toll from Thursday’s incident at the Cambodian factory, a low steel structure, than from the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza complex on the outskirts of Dhaka three weeks ago could intensify pressure on retailers to avoid buying from multistory factories. Any such shift could put Bangladesh, India and Pakistan at a disadvantage.
Factories in South Asia have tended to be taller because countries in that region have lagged in highway and road construction, and land prices have soared in those areas that do have good road access. In Bangladesh, factory owners have also complained of problems in persuading utilities to provide electricity and water connections suitable for larger sites.