Safeguarding Those Who Make Our Clothes
Five years ago, a five-story building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers who had been ordered to enter despite indications that the building was unsound. The incident, considered the deadliest garment-factory accident ever, drew international condemnation and inspired global clothing companies to vow they would improve labor conditions. But has anything changed?
To find out, we spoke with Jette Steen Knudsen, professor of policy and international business at the Fletcher School and co-author of the new book, Visible Hands: Government Regulation and International Business Responsibility (Cambridge University Press).
Tufts Now: Five years after the Rana Plaza tragedy of April 24, 2013, which killed more than 1,100 people and injured about 2,500, have conditions for garment workers improved?
Jette Steen Knudsen: In Bangladesh, conditions have improved for garment workers in terms of workplace safety such as sound building structures and electrical wiring. Notably there have been no fatalities in the garment industry since Rana Plaza. However, in terms of core labor rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, improvements have been rather limited.
How did that incident change the way clothing companies operate and the way Bangladesh regulates factories?
After Rana Plaza, more than two hundred mostly European buyers formed a five-year legally binding agreement known as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to improve safety issues in the factories that supplied signatory firms. Meanwhile, twenty-eight U.S. firms established the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a similar, non-legally binding five-year initiative. The Bangladesh government also established a national initiative to improve safety in the export-oriented garment factories not covered by either the Accord or the Alliance. The Alliance will end this summer, while the Accord is expected to continue as the Transition Accord.
You’ve said that those agreements have improved building safety, but they don’t promote core labor rights. What’s being done to protect workers’ rights?
There has been a push—notably from the U.S. government but also from European governments—for Bangladesh to adopt new labor legislation that better protects the rights of workers, both in terms of workplace safety and in terms of the rights of workers to organize. After Rana Plaza, the Bangladesh Labor Act was amended in 2013 to better protect labor rights such as the freedom to organize. However, critics argue that labor rights are still not well protected. In 2017 several workers, including several union representatives, were jailed for participating in strike action in favor of a living minimum wage.
We need government to regulate working conditions, but sadly in many countries such as Bangladesh, government is failing to protect labor rights.
How can consumers help ensure the safety of garment workers?
Many consumers say they want to buy products that are produced in a socially responsible way. But most consumers also seem to prefer cheap prices, and this puts pressure on producers to cut costs.
One solution is perhaps to buy products of better quality and be willing to pay more for them. Better quality products are typically made under better conditions for labor. One of my Fletcher students, Tess Tacka, F18, just wrote a capstone thesis on ways to develop more sustainable fashion. In doing her research, she came across a study that found that the typical U.S. consumer wears each piece of clothing only seven times—seven times! That seems really wasteful. If we bought clothes of a better quality, they would also last longer.
Ultimately, though, I do not think consumer behavior will be a strong enough force to prevent future Rana Plaza-like tragedies. Most consumers like cheap prices. Therefore, governments must take the responsibility for this.
What should governments do?
Governments such as those in the U.S. and Europe should put pressure on the Bangladeshi government and other governments like it to improve conditions for labor. U.S. and European governments have already done a lot to assist the Bangladeshi government in improving building safety, such as training building inspectors and providing loans for companies that undertake remediation of factories, but progress is slow when it comes to core labor rights.
Increasingly, countries have begun to regulate corporate social responsibility in their supply chains in the form of mandatory legislation. For example, in 2017 the French Parliament passed a law that pushes for accountability for multinational companies sourcing from global supply chains.
The “duty of vigilance” law requires companies to establish safeguards designed to ensure that labor rights and other human rights are respected in the production sites they source from. A “plan of vigilance” requires that large companies draft a risk map, procedures for evaluating partners and subsidiaries, actions undertaken to mitigate risks and severe violations, and a mechanism to receive alerts of violations from workers and the organizations that represent them locally. Companies found in violation of this law are subject to a penalty of up to 10 million euros.
Similarly, in 2017, the Dutch House of Representatives adopted a bill that requires covered companies to investigate the existence of child labor within their operations or supply chains—this bill is still awaiting final approval by the Senate. The companies covered by the bill include not only those registered in the Netherlands, but also companies selling products to Dutch consumers, including online retailers.
In short, we see that some governments have begun to regulate corporate social responsibility in the global supply chains of their home country firms and sometimes, as in the Dutch case, also of firms that do business in that country.
Heather Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.