Four years since Rana Plaza, urgent action is needed to protect garment workers

Monday, 24 April 2017 10:35 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Little has changed for the 75 million people working in the garment supply chain globally

Think about the clothes you’re wearing today. How much do you know about where they are from? Who sewed the seams, moulded the buttons, dyed the fabric? If you knew, would you still have bought them?

These questions are easily overlooked among the bright lights of glitzy shopping malls. But every now and again, there’s a stark reminder of the real cost of our clothes.

On 23th April 2013, almost 4,000 people turned up to work at the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was just another work day, manufacturing apparel for big name brands – orders had recently been taken for clothes from Benetton, Bon Marche, Matalan and Primark.

However, something was out of the ordinary. Cracks had begun to appear in the building. It was immediately evacuated and workers sent home – the owner demanding they come back in tomorrow.

As they arrived at work the next day the building collapsed, folding like a house of cards. Some 1,129 workers were killed, and another 2,500 injured. It was the deadliest garment-factory accident in history. Particularly alarming is that it took weeks for many companies to determine whether they had a relationship with the factory, despite their clothing labels being found in the rubble.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this terrible tragedy. However, little has changed for the 75 million people worldwide who work in the garment supply chain. The majority continue to live in poverty. The combined salary of 10,000 workers in garment factories in Bangladesh is equal to the salary of one FTSE 100 CEO. Moreover, many face exploitation, verbal and physical abuse, and unsafe conditions on a daily basis.

Thankfully, a number of civil society groups such as Clean Clothes Campaign and Ethical Fashion Forum are working tirelessly to tackle these deeply-entrenched problems. In the wake of Rana Plaza, a new generation of activists such as Fashion Revolution have emerged. They are doing incredible work to promote sustainable fashion, and encourage consumers to question who made their clothes.

Larger institutions such as the ILO and the OECD have launched their own initiatives. Some such projects have helped to improve the situation for garment workers. But so far, many of these efforts have not been harmonised – often overlapping, or without the vast scope necessary to hold garment manufacturers to their obligations.

In 2014, the European Commission began to explore the idea of setting up its own flagship initiative for the garment sector in order to improve transparency of supply chains and working conditions. However, three years later, little progress has been made. Now the European Parliament is taking action in a bid to prompt movement on this complex yet vital issue.

A new proposal led by the Parliament’s Development Committee, which looks set to receive cross-party support from MEPs on Wednesday, calls on the Commission to prepare a legislative proposal for binding standards in the garment sector. This would involve ensuring that supply chains abide by existing guidelines from the likes of the ILO and OECD. However, the resolution also goes much further – for example, guaranteeing health and safety, the elimination of child labour, regular payment of an adequate wage, transparency of the supply chain, empowering women, and assisting developing countries to monitor and enforce such laws and regulations.

As shadow rapporteur on the Parliament’s Development Committee and rapporteur on the Employment and Social Affairs Committee, we both helped to influence the shape of the proposal – securing the inclusion of important amendments such as independent labour inspections, and intra-EU initiatives to ensure that high standards are met both within and outside the borders of the European Union.

The finished product is a bold proposal. While it’s not legally binding, it sends a strong message to the Commission – urgent policy action is needed to clean up the garment industry, and ensure that its 75 million workers can go to work without fear of exploitation, injury or worse.

Jean Lambert has been London’s Green MEP since 1999.

Judith Sargentini is an MEP on behalf of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament.