Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times
KARACHI, Pakistan — The century-old Central Jail here, a gritty repository of criminals, jihadists and sectarian killers, has a reputation for overcrowding and prisoner riots. But for Arshad and Shahid Bhaila, the industrialist brothers whose factory burned to the ground in September, killing at least 262 workers, there are some comforts.
As Category B prisoners, the Bhailas have a private room, a bathroom, a television and personally cooked meals. Those perks, to be sure, may prove only a short-lived solace once their trial begins next month and they face a possible death sentence on murder charges.
Yet their lawyer, in mounting a defense, is seeking to shelter the Bhailas behind a far greater source of comfort: an apparel industry certification system that gave their factory, Ali Enterprises, a clean bill of health just three weeks before the horrific blaze.
Despite survivors’ accounts of locked emergency exits and barred windows that prevented workers from leaping to safety, the Bhailas’ lawyer says their SA8000 certificate, issued under the auspices of Social Accountability International, a respected nonprofit organization based in New York, proves they were running a model business.
“This was a state-of-the-art factory that met international standards,” said the lawyer, Amer Raza Naqvi. “The SA8000 is accepted all over the world. They have very strict rules before issuing any certificate.”
But after the Karachi fire and the more recent factory inferno in Bangladesh that killed 112 people, that contention raises a crucial question: Does industry-backed “social auditing,” which purports to safeguard the lives and working conditions of some of the world’s poorest workers, really work?
For the past 15 years, retail giants like Walmart and Carrefour have helped create and champion numerous factory inspection systems. In embracing such monitoring, the companies are motivated by genuine concern for the workers at the bottom of their supply chain, but also by their own bottom line, worried that consumers might shun products made at factories where there are abuses.
These elaborate systems look good on paper, but the actual work is often delegated to largely unsupervised subcontractors eager to drum up more business. The company that certified Ali Enterprises, as in many other cases, never visited the factory, handing off the job to a local inspector it dealt with by telephone or at meetings outside Pakistan.
For labor groups, academics and some industry insiders, the recent fires confirm longstanding fears that the voluntary system is weak, opaque and inherently flawed.
“Right from the outset, there has been concern,” said Philip J. Jennings, general secretary of UNI Global Union, a grouping of 900 labor unions that recently quit the board of Social Accountability International to protest what he said was the certification system’s overall ineffectiveness in improving factory conditions and workers’ lives.
Certification systems like the SA8000, said Khalid Nadvi, an expert on monitoring at the University of Manchester in England, are “very patchy and in many cases totally ineffective.”
“Factories often know when the inspectors are coming,” Mr. Nadvi added. “You have workers being coached what to say. There may be two sets of books.”
The certificate that Ali Enterprises boasts about is considered the most prestigious in the industry. It is the creation of Alice Tepper Marlin, a Wellesley College graduate and former Wall Street analyst who, after starting an activist group in 1969 to push for greater corporate responsibility, eventually settled on trying to make the world’s sweatshops less horrid.
Founded in 1997, Social Accountability International receives fees and membership payments from industry giants like Gap, Gucci and H&M, but it also obtains money from labor unions, governments, foundations and nongovernment organizations. It created the SA8000 to certify factories that meet basic requirements in eight areas, including health and safety, wages, working hours and child labor.
Today, Ms. Tepper Marlin’s modest-sized organization oversees a sprawling, often problematic empire. Its SA8000 stamp of approval has been given to 3,083 factories in 66 countries. Ms. Tepper Marlin said the catastrophic Ali Enterprises fire shook her deeply. After missing some crucial warning flags until it was too late, she and her organization are now rethinking their whole monitoring system.
Nonetheless, she still vigorously defends that system, saying that it has been vital to setting and safeguarding baseline standards for supply-chain workers in poor countries, particularly those with corruption-prone governments and weak unions.
“We think we do make a difference,” Ms. Tepper Marlin said. “We’re just trying to help get a culture of compliance.”
The various disasters have given fresh oxygen to critics who say industry-led certification should be abolished across the board and replaced with a more accountable system that requires the retailing giants — and their Western consumers — to help pay for needed factory improvements, even if that means higher prices for clothing.
“These private codes have become a commodity that is bought and sold, but not rigorously enforced,” Mr. Nadvi said. “We need to move beyond them.”
Outsourcing the Inspections