Since last year’s tragic Bangladesh factory collapse, mass retailers are facing increasing scrutiny for their manufacturing practices, a sentiment demonstrated during the World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto. The event, which showcased designs from Canadian designers, spotlighted the current labour practices still taking place in Bangladesh and the commitment of corporations to take responsibility for their lack of oversight.
Joe Mirman, creative director of the Loblaws Brand Joe Fresh, reconfirmed in an interview Loblaws’ commitment to support the victims and families affected by the Rana Plaza garment factory tragedy. “There’s been a lot of work done with respect to that. There’s about 40 brands that are involved, and I know about 15 of them have all committed so far,” said Mirman in regards to Loblaws’ commitment to provide long-term, direct financial compensation for the victims and their families of the factory collapse. Therefore, as we near the one-year anniversary of the event, it is important to analyze whether or not labour conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry have improved.
The accident, which occurred April 24 of last year, claimed more than 1,131 lives and injured an additional 2,500 when an eight-storey commercial building collapsed in in Savar, a sub-district in the Greater Dhaka Area in the capital of Bangladesh. The collapse was attributed to a number of structural factors, which involved building on unsuitable lands, illegally adding additional floors, and improperly using the building for manufacturing purposes.
Since the accident, there has been international pressure from government’s, NGO’s and corporations to improve the labour conditions in the country. As a result, the nation revised the Bangladesh Labour Act in the summer. Some of the amendments include provisions to improve workplace safety and freedom to allow employees to form labour unions without the approval of factory owners.
“The best way to avoid future Rana Plaza-type disasters and end the exploitation of Bangladeshi workers is to encourage the establishment of independent trade unions to monitor and protect workers’ rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). The new amendments, however, were not as successful as they seemed, as they failed to effectively protect the right to freedom of association. “Although union members no longer have to be vetted by owners, the directorate of labour still has wide discretionary powers. In practice, that means owners may be able to block unions,” said Abul Kalam Muhammad Nasim, senior legal counsel at the American Center for International Labor Solidarity in Dhaka.
Overall, Bangladesh is the world’s second largest exporter of clothing after China. It has over 5,000 garment factories, which supply the orders for almost all global brands, and has become an “export powerhouse” primarily because of the low production cost, which comes at the expense of the workers. The country has one of the lowest wages for garment workers and some of the worst working conditions such as abusive management practices, overcrowding, poor ventilation, long work hours, and unsanitary environments.
As such, there is still a long road to improve working conditions. With the support of corporations, however, progress might be achieved at a faster pace. Normally apparel makers’ supply chains are fragmented. Companies place their garment orders through middlemen who outsource the work, leaving retailers, like Loblaws, unable to trace where their clothing was being made. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, believes that it is a turning point when companies take responsibility in supporting workers and improving working conditions. He believes that companies like the supermarket giant are growing aware of dangers associated with producing cheap clothing items. This is exemplified with the signing of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a document that was drafted in conjunction with unions, apparel companies and labour rights NGOs. The Accord is a legally binding document that provides for the greater safety of workers by ensuring independent safety inspections at factories and public reporting of the results of these inspections. Overall, global brands can now be held accountable in court for their operations abroad, and due to public pressure, over 150 apparel corporations including brands such as H&M, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Joe Fresh have signed the Accord.
Thus, to ensure that the Bangladesh Government spearheads proper labour practices and follows regulations it is essential that corporations are aware of where items are being produced and commits to selling products that are reflective of ethical labour practices. This means putting pressure on governments to enforce ethical standards and actively taking action to ensure safety measures are set in place. The reforms introduced in the summer demonstrate how such pressure can work, and if corporations band together to further pressure the nation, labour practices can be further improved.