Labour rights are fundamental human rights.
As an adviser to investors and trade unions and ethical trade adviser, I have worked on labour issues in a range of capacities: In 2009, I helped Unite the Union write and secure support for the first UK AGM resolution on labour rights and equal treatment to exceed 10% vote actively in favour. Being in Bangladesh at the time, I supported efforts to provide pro bono advice and support for union members and investors in Dhaka following the Rana Plaza disaster.
Every word of the following from February 2013 – after Tazreen, but before Rana Plaza remains relevant today.
Working conditions are perhaps the easiest to relate to of all ESG issues. Yet despite worldwide consensus underpinned by ILO conventions on the importance of labour standards as a fundamental part of universal human rights, in practice, the very nature of work, industry, capital and labour means that labour standards are always topical as they often breached or debated.
High profile examples – abuses of core labour rights or even worse multiple deaths from accidents/poor health and safety – that are associated with or part of the supply chains of major brands – attract the most global coverage and calls for action. (for example after the horrendous fire which killed over 117 people at the Tazreen factory in Ashulia near Dhaka in Bangladesh in November 2012, http://www.laborrights.org/news/coverage-of-the-tarzeen-fire)
This is not to forget of course that breaches of key labour rights, or exploitative conditions/low pay can – and do – occur within the world’s richest economies. But it is morally right that in a globalised world, more attention needs to be paid to vulnerable workers within poorer countries. Bangladesh provides another good illustration of this topic in Roland Buerks book Breaking Ships http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1285525.Breaking_Ships (March 28, 2006); ISBN-10: 1596090367). A detailed account of businesses and workers lives within the successful shipbreaking and recycling industry sustained by the Chittagong port area, Buerk makes the point that whilst this industry will always attract controversy because of its inherent safety and environmental risks – it is also both a supplier of raw materials for the national economy and a key link in the global logistics chain benefiting global consumers by keeping costs down for international shipowners.
Along with the spread of globalisation, consumers and investors have encouraged the adoption of codes of conduct by companies and the spread of international assurance standards (such as SA8000) to monitor them. Impact assessment studies by bodies such as the Ethical Trading Initiative confirm these have played a part in improving standards, particularly on easier to audit issues such as child labour, but more remains to be done.
In particular, systemic issues or risks associated with long/forced overtime hours, low pay, and discrimination are harder to control or root out. Any massively competitive industry, particularly one operating where there is a large supply of cheap labour like the Ready Made Garments (RMG) export sector in Bangladesh, is likely to face some systemic breaches of standards – The challenge is how to spread good practices that already exist in the sector (which is building more modern factories and continuing to achieve growth becoming the 2nd biggest exporter of RMG in 2012 after China http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2012/07/03/consolidating-accelerating-exports-bangladesh ) and raise the playing field as a whole.
Although conscientious efforts made by some retailers and brands (and support for fair trade models by some consumers and producers eg; via www.ethicalfashionforum.com/,) are beneficial and improve standards in the short term, in the long run experience suggests that empowering workers to help represent themselves is an essential but often overlooked element in sustainably safeguarding and improving standards – not to mention productivity.
This is not surprising perhaps as freedom of association and collective bargaining are sensitive issues in many countries or politically restricted as in China. In Bangladesh, it is to be hoped that the government’s 2013 national action plan on fire safety and associated investigations in the wake of the Tazreen and similar fires will help to raise standards and prevent further accidents and deaths. The various multistakeholder initiatives involving brands, unions, the ILO and the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufactures & Exporters Association) such as that convened by the global garments union (Industriall – January 2013) will hopefully provide a platform for further improvements in working conditions and labour rights; in the past, too much of the Bangladeshi political debate has been dominated by talk of conspiracies against the industry and speculation about the cause of fires, rather than calmly dealing with first hand testimony from workers (promptly interviewed by local media and news channels) about locked doors and lack of fire exits.
In turn, more brands and buyers need to take their own commitments and responsibilities more seriously – retailers must be expected to follow best practice by fully addressing breaches of labour standards when they are highlighted and pro-actively working to mitigate problems, implement corrective action plans and raise standards within their supply chains – if they fail to do this or walk away from a problem supplier as Wal-Mart is alleged to have done recently in Bangladesh http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=270558, they will rightly face criticism.
Of course if as analysts suggest, the Bangladesh industry’s export growth has been driven mainly by low wages (all the many genuine efforts to implement codes of conduct notwithstanding) it is easier to understand – if not agree with defensive and nationalistic responses made to calls to increase trade union rights in Bangladesh. The sector is too important in providing jobs (and bringing millions of women into the formal workforce) for this sort of resistance not to occur. Likewise global market pressures are so competitive that many buyers are happy to take advantage of this type of race to the bottom.
Certainly with the vast majority of bargaining power and finance within the sector lying in the hands of global buyers and retailers, they are the ones with the most ability to facilitate improvements to standards and wages, (which experience suggests can be a win-win by improving productivity rather than being a cost) – so this is arguably where most responsibility lies and where consumers and activists will target most pressure to help raise standards.
Niaz Alam Feb 2013