Improving Conditions in the Garment Industry will Take More Than Consumer Pressure

Wednesday, 20 April 2016 16:33 GMT

Bangladesh garment workers rally on May Day 2015 for decent wages, safe workplaces. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim

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“Since Rana Plaza, do you feel safer in your factories?”

“Yes!” came the unanimous and enthusiastic answer.

In a small but busy union office on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, 30 garment workers had gathered for a training on basic fire and building safety preparedness.[1] With fans whirring overhead against the afternoon heat, they explained that, thanks to domestic and international pressure, factory owners were finally taking safety more seriously. Where locked exits and non-existent safety equipment once were the norm, three years after the largest industrial disaster in the garment sector, many factories finally have fire extinguishers, first-aid kits and even fire doors.

The preventable and deadly Tazreen Fashions factory fire and Rana Plaza[2] building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed at least 117 people and 1,138 people respectively, spurred numerous initiatives aimed at increasing consumer awareness, improving factory safety and advancing worker rights. Unions, advocacy groups, clothing brands, governments and consumers, to their joint credit, have maintained efforts to address glaring problems in the garment sector. Consumers and advocates put sustained pressure on brands sourcing apparel from Bangladesh to assist their suppliers in making factories safer. In a display of true international solidarity, unions in countries like the United States have encouraged their governments to work with their Bangladeshi counterparts to ensure garment workers can form unions capable of protecting their rights. While imperfect, these efforts have led to increased attention on all parts of the global garment production process or supply chain, including in countries like Burma, Cambodia and Haiti.

As with the clothing industry, increased scrutiny of the global supply chains that deliver other products to our store shelves reveals a long list of human rights violations. From cocoa to electronics, advocates have identified and campaigned against a long list of worker rights and environmental abuses, including child labor, wage theft and toxic workplaces. Clearly, as the training participants in Dhaka had pointed out to me, a supply chain-focused approach produces tangible gains.

This strategy alone, however, is insufficient. The products garnering the most public attention are those we consume every day, like skinny jeans or chocolate bars. In Bangladesh, the inspectors hired to check on garment factories will not be inspecting labor conditions in dangerous ship breaking yards, where injuries and deaths are commonplace. Children continue to help their parents meet high production quotas in brick kilns across Pakistan[3] and at palm oil plantations in Liberia. Domestic workers still struggle to be covered by the most basic labor protections around the world.  In these and other exploitative industries, employers are largely unknown to the average consumer and unaffected by reputational pressure.

A country-level strategy is crucial for protecting the rights of all workers, regardless of sector. This strategy requires a long-term commitment to build the capacity of workers’ organizations to advocate for the rights of all workers, of governments to pass and enforce comprehensive labor protections, and of employers to engage in peaceful and meaningful labor relations. While challenging, improving labor conditions at the country level and on a global scale would not only protect the most vulnerable workers, but also reinforce the supply-chain approach by guarding against the kind of economic competition that drives down wages, exploits corruption and benefits from abysmal work standards.

We know from experience that workers are best positioned to identify abuse or dangerous conditions in their workplaces, and they are equally well-placed to determine viable solutions. Since Tazreen and Rana Plaza, Bangladeshi garment workers have formed unions in unprecedented numbers, empowering themselves to demand safer workplaces and an end to human rights abuses. But this did not come easily or happen overnight. Although workers in more than 330 factories organized legally protected unions, workers in hundreds of other factories have been denied that same right. Though a slow and uphill battle, progress toward decent working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories results from both building local capacity and sustained global efforts to hold corporations accountable for conditions in their supply chains.

For international donors seeking to protect rights throughout supply chains and beyond, meaningful support is required for building strong country-level institutions—from government agencies and judicial systems to trade unions—capable of advancing justice across borders.