There remain significant challenges to overcome in cleaning up the international value chain for fashion and textiles, and some of them are in the UK.
Bangladesh is well known as a textile production area where workers’ rights are often poorly protected. The 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse was the deadliest garment factory accident in history, with a death toll of 1,129. Unfortunately, the event seems to have had an as yet limited effect on working conditions in the industry. Despite promises made by retailers to improve conditions following the factory collapse in Dhaka, staff as young as 13 were filmed by ITV in factories being kicked, slapped and hit with a used fabric roll as well as abused with physical threats and insults.
Even more worryingly, fire escapes at one factory were shown padlocked, even though hundreds of garment workers have died in fires after being trapped in similar factories. The programme, which aired last year, fitted local garment workers with secret cameras to record the conditions. One of the women is forced to work 89 hours over seven days at a factory in Mirpur, a district of Dhaka. Male managers were observed abusing younger girls who they think are not working fast enough, and exhausted staff are told they must work all night to get out a big order. They are threatened with beatings or the sack if they don’t comply.
According to a Human Rights Watch report (ominously titled ‘Work Faster or Get Out’), workers in Cambodia’s garment factories—frequently producing name-brand clothing sold mainly in the United States, the European Union, and Canada—often experience discriminatory and exploitative labour conditions. The combination of short-term contracts that make it easier to fire and control workers, poor government labour inspection and enforcement, and aggressive tactics against independent unions make it difficult for workers, the vast majority of whom are young women, to assert their rights.
Uzbekistan is another area of concern. According to a report by the Responsible Sourcing Network, the Government of Uzbekistan has for decades been forcing up to a million of own its citizens to work in the yearly cotton harvest. Much of this cotton finds its way into global supply-chains, and the products that are sold by Western retailers (with some big high-street names getting a particular mention).
What is perhaps most shocking, however, is that the United Kingdom has problems of its own when it comes to abuses of workers’ rights in the garment industry. Leicester was known for its thriving textile industry in the 19th Century, although working conditions in the mills were somewhat notorious. Nowadays many smaller garment factories and workshops remain, employing more than 10,000 people. But according to researchers at the University of Leicester, 75-90% were being paid £3 per hour – less than half the legal minimum wage of £6.50. The report also details widespread workplace practices that include: inadequate health and safety standards, bullying, threats, arbitrary humiliation, denial of toilet breaks, theft of maternity pay and the absence of employment contracts.
International clothing and footwear brands have a responsibility to promote respect for workers’ rights throughout their supply chains, including both direct suppliers and subcontractor factories. As documented in the above reports, many brands have not fully lived up to these responsibilities due to the absence of whistleblower protections, failure to help factories correct problems in situations where that is both possible and warranted, and most importantly, poor supply chain transparency.
As I noted in a previous blog entry, customers are increasingly looking for assurance that the materials or products they buy have been extracted and produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. Consumer demand for verified responsibly sourced products has become the new normal –according to a study conducted in 2013, 87 percent of global consumers are “very likely” to consider a company’s social and environmental commitment before deciding what to buy and where to shop, and 90 percent of global consumers want companies to go beyond the minimum standards required by law to operate responsibly and address social and environmental issues. Chain of Custody practices and traceability measures are essential. Traceability is the ability to identify and trace the history, distribution, location, and application of products, parts, materials, and services. A traceability system records and follows the trail as products, parts, materials, and services come from suppliers and are processed and ultimately distributed as final products and services.
In order to have value at the market end of geographically long, complex value chains, claims about responsible sourcing have to be underpinned by practical and transparent processes. Claims that have no credibility are counter-productive and damage brands. Businesses that make corporate-social-responsibility claims that cannot be proven will be targeted by NGOs like the ones cited above.