THIS ARTICLE IS TAKEN FROM THE TEARFUND ETHICAL GUIDE. PHOTO CREDIT TO RAHUL TALUKDER
On 24 April 2013, Rana Plaza collapsed in the Savar district of Dhaka, Bangladesh, claiming the lives of 1,134 people and injuring over 2,000 more. The eight-storey building took just 90 seconds to be reduced to rubble.
Appallingly, this disaster followed the site’s evacuation only the day prior due to structural concerns — a result of dire overcrowding and poor (and illegal) construction. Despite this fact, garment workers were coerced into returning to work on the day of the collapse.
Sadly, the Rana Plaza disaster was not an isolated incident, but rather, the latest in a spate of similar factory disasters. Exactly six months before, a fire ripped through the Tarzeen Fashion factory (also in Bangladesh) killing 117 people. A month before that, the Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan claimed the lives of 254 more. These tragedies mark a crucial turning point in global consciousness of the labour rights issues in the fashion industry.
Until the Rana Plaza tragedy, few global fashion companies chose to make information about their supply chains publicly available. Where clothes were made, and the conditions they were made in, was, largely, invisible to the world. But the global community was so horrified by the news reported in papers and by the pictures flooding TV screens, that it began to take notice and demand change. And through the combined action of various stakeholders — including consumers, governments, garment workers, civil society groups like Baptist World Aid Australia, and even fashion brands themselves — change is occurring.
Five years on, Tearfund seek to honour the lives lost in these three tragedies and reflect on the progress that has been made with their Ethical Fashion Guide which grades companies according to the work they do for their workers through the supply chain.
The collapse of Rana Plaza threw the need for increased supply chain transparency into the global spotlight. The problem is, today’s supply chains are complex; and frequently, global in nature. Without transparency, the task of holding companies to account becomes problematic.
According to Human Rights Watch, “supply chain transparency — starting with publishing names, addresses, and other important information about factories producing for global apparel companies— is a powerful tool to assert workers’ human rights, advance ethical business practices, and build stakeholder trust”.
The proportion of companies publishing supplier lists has doubled since the Rana Plaza disaster. Of those publishing information, almost half are going beyond providing names and addresses for factories and are publishing detailed information such as the number of workers, the proportion of male to female workers, or the types of products being made.
In countries where worker protections are weak or non-existent, abuses such as forced labour, human-trafficking, and slavery are rife. Exploitation exists at every stage of the global garment industry supply chain. Following the example set by California, the UK, and France; Baptist World Aid Australia worked with others, including the Walk Free Foundation and Stop the Traffik, to campaign the Australian Government for a law to fight slavery. There is now bipartisan commitment to introduce modern slavery legislation into parliament by the end of 2018. Additionally, earlier this year, the New South Wales State Parliament tabled Australia’s first Modern Slavery Bill.
THE GOOD NEWS:
Sector initiatives continue to drive change in the fashion industry, making it a safer and more equitable place of employment for people across the world. Some examples are:
- Asia Floor Wage Alliance (active since 2005) — an international alliance of trade unions and labour rights activists who are working together to demand garment workers are paid a living wage. Given that 43 million garment workers are employed in the Asia-Pacific region, this is an important initiative.
- Action, Collaboration, Transformation Initiative (ACT Initiative) — a collaboration between 17 fashion brands and retailers, manufacturers, and trade unions to address the issue of living wages in the textile and garment supply chain. Participating brands include Kmart, Next, Inditex, and H&M.
- Better Work — a partnership between the United Nations, the International Finance Corporation, and the ILO, which brings diverse groups together — governments, global brands, factory owners, and unions and workers — to improve working conditions in the garment industry. A recent independent study on the effectiveness of the program demonstrated that aggregate non-compliance rates have decreased, indicating improving working conditions in factories.
The Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord was established in May 2013 in response to the Rana Plaza collapse. The Accord is an independent, legally binding agreement between brands and unions, designed to work towards a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Garment industry. It has been signed by over 200 companies from Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. The Accord Agreement consisted of six key components:
- a five year legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure a safe working environment in the Bangladeshi garment industry;
- an independent inspection program supported by brands incorporating workers and trade unions;
- public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports, and corrective action plans (CAPs);
- a commitment by signatory brands to ensure sufficient funds are available for remediation and to maintain sourcing relationships;
- democratically elected health and safety committees in all factories to identify and act on health and safety risks; and
- worker empowerment through an extensive training program, complaints mechanism and right to refuse unsafe work.
Since its establishment, 2096 factories have been inspected under the Accord program. 96 of these have been terminated for failure to comply with Accord standards, 1631 factories are currently covered under the Accord program with pending CAPs, and the remaining 369 factories are either closed, transferred, or still awaiting inspection. While a substantial amount of remediation is occurring under the Accord program, the most recent data demonstrates that 72.9% of CAPs remain behind schedule. Only 1.5% of factories have fully completed their CAP, 6% have completed their initial CAP, and a further 8.4% are proceeding on track.
Earlier this year, a major settlement was reached resulting in a US$2.3million payout to fix issues at over 150 garment factories across Bangladesh. Unions responded positively to this settlement, saying that it was proof that the Accord was serving its purpose. With the end of the Accord’s five-year term approaching, it was announced in June 2017 that the agreement would be extended for a further three years. However, a report published by the Bangladesh Investors Initiative found that only 53 of the 220 current Accord signatories have signed on to the 2018 Accord, causing significant concerns about the effectiveness of the project moving forward. This includes a number of well-known Australasian brands operating in Bangladesh.