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OPINION: Data drive can improve lives of garment workers worldwide

by Katie Shaw | Open Apparel Registry
Tuesday, 3 November 2020 15:22 GMT

Women work in a garment factory, as factories reopened after the government has eased the restrictions amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 3, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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

A global database of apparel factories allows major brands to be held to account for worker exploitation

 By Katie Shaw, the Chief Operating Officer for the Open Apparel Registry (OAR)

Anyone working in the fashion industry knows how complex and fragmented apparel supply chains are, with even the simplest of items involving multiple suppliers across multiple continents. Following the mass up-take of off-shoring in the 80s and 90s, the supply chains of most global brands are thousands of miles away from their headquarters or the final point of sale, and the majority brands don’t own the facilities in which their products are being made. This physical distance and lack of ownership makes keeping track of supply chains a complex and costly endeavour.

Sadly, with this complexity comes poor supply chain practices and the sector is rife with stories of child labour, poverty wages, environmental abuses and more. The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in yet more issues, with major global brands cancelling billions of dollars worth of orders from facilities leaving many factory owners unable to pay their staff. Elsewhere, factory workers around the world are being forced to work in unsafe conditions, unable to socially distance. In perhaps the most searing of ironies, many of those workers are now making PPE for export.

Following the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 which, amongst other things, revealed how little many global brands knew about where their products were being made, a growing trend has developed for supply chain disclosure in the apparel sector.

However, in response to these calls for greater transparency, supply chain disclosure has been inconsistent, difficult to track from one website to another and data is often locked away in non-machine readable formats such as PDFs or tables embedded in websites. A lack of standard formatting for information as basic as name and address data (coupled with the poor quality of this data) makes it difficult and costly for anyone to compare across datasets and understand shared connections to facilities. Data has been stuck in silos and lacked a universal, central ID through which systems could synchronize, making interoperability between systems impossible.

Enter the Open Apparel Registry (OAR). It is a neutral, open source tool mapping garment facilities worldwide and allocating a unique ID to each facility. Populated by contributions from stakeholders across the industry, including global brands, multi stakeholder initiatives, civil society organisations and factory groups, the OAR is powered by a sophisticated name and address matching algorithm which recognises where a facility already exists in the database, and creates a new entry where a facility is being entered into the system for the first time. As well as many other efficiency and process benefits, the way the OAR organizes and presents data ultimately improves the lives of some of the most vulnerable workers in global supply chains.

Since our launch in March 2019, the OAR has grown to nearly 45,000 facilities across 120 countries, with data added by over 200 contributors. But beyond the growth in the volume of facilities in the database, the OAR has created meaningful change in the lives of workers. The Clean Clothes campaign has used the OAR’s data on numerous occasions for its advocacy work, including to reach out to brands in seeking remediation for trade union leaders who have been unfairly dismissed from their positions. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), meanwhile, has been able to use data in the OAR to ensure that workers in Cambodia who were unfairly dismissed for participating in protests over changes to minimum wage legislation were reinstated to their jobs. We also know that the tool’s data has been used in mitigating the impact that COVID-19 has had on workers in the sector.

Whilst progress has undoubtedly been made in supply chain disclosure in the apparel sector in recent years, there is still more work to be done. In the first instance, there is the need to move from “transparency for transparency’s sake”, to the point where the exercise of mapping supply chains results in tangible benefits for both society and the environment.

In addition to this, there are still huge swathes of the sector which are not disclosing any supply chain information at all. For those brands which are disclosing information on the first tier of their supply chain, the work doesn’t stop there - we need to see more organisations disclosing more layers of their supply chain, and to also share additional data points beyond name and address information, such as worker numbers, percentage of female workers, whether or not a facility is unionized and more.

Ultimately, we aim to see every apparel facility globally – including subcontractors – mapped in the OAR, each allocated its own ID. Our goal is for the OAR ID to be used as the “central source of truth” in industry which, in turn, will enable collaboration and facilitate supply chain improvements.

Beyond that, we’re excited about the possibilities for trend analysis looking at how supply chains change over time and what other datasets could be incorporated into the tool, including environmental data and more. Other industries are interested in our approach, too.