Retailers urged to take Bangladesh safety deal further
Workers rights groups are calling on retailers to use a legally binding deal to improve safety for clothes factory workers in Bangladesh as a blueprint for tackling similar problems elsewhere.
IndustriALL, the international union group which is backing the deal between textile workers and more than 70 retailers to tackle fire safety and building security in Bangladesh, said it had already begun work to build a similar agreement in Pakistan. It comes amid evidence that workers in Pakistan and China face greater workplace risks than those in Bangladesh.
Retailers including Primark, Marks & Spencer and H&M agreed to independent factory inspections and action to improve manufacturers' buildings in Bangladesh after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in April killed more than 1,100 people.
Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL, said many of those retailers also produced goods in Pakistan and could sign up to a second deal. "The strategy of working through the global supply chain does work and should be a blueprint for countries beyond Bangladesh," he said.
Raina believes the Bangladeshi deal, on which talks had started two years before the Rana Plaza collapse put it in the spotlight, was likely to be effective because retailers had promised funds for factory inspections, changes and rebuilding, and faced legal repercussions if they did not co-operate.
Bangladesh, however, is ranked only the 17th-worst country on a labour rights and protection index put together by global risk consultancy Maplecroft and referred to by major retailers around the world. The index takes into account factors including working conditions, the prevalence of forced or child labour and the freedom to form unions.
Pakistan and China are ranked respectively third- and fourth-worst places to work on the index, behind the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma.
More than half of clothing factories inspected in Bangladesh and Pakistan failed to meet fire safety standards, according to Sedex, a not for profit group that compiles ethical audit data for companies to monitor their supply chain.
In both countries safety issues such as blocked fire exits or a lack of alarms were the biggest single problem identified by inspectors, ahead of long working hours, low wages and the use of child labour.
Other countries did not fare much better. More than 40 percent of clothing factories in China, India and Turkey, all major producers of clothing for shops in the UK and elsewhere, failed fire safety inspections.
While a third of clothing factories in Bangladesh did not meet building and site maintenance standards, more than a quarter of factories in India, Pakistan and Turkey were in the same position, said Sedex.
Sam Maher, a worker rights campaigner at pressure group Labour Behind the Label, said Sedex only inspected a limited number of factories and its findings were likely to be the tip of the iceberg. "
"These issues are completely systemic and relate to the way the industry operates," she said..
In the past, retailers and brands have not taken sufficient action to tackle the problems highlighted by such inspections, according to Maher. "There is a definite need for the industry in each country to come together and work with different stakeholders to change things," she said.
But Maher said factory safety agreements in other countries could not just be cut and pasted from the deal in Bangladesh. "We don't want cheap knock-off accords. The key principles are legal influence, the involvement of workers' representatives and full building inspections -- but that has to be looked at in the context of each country."
Arvind Ramakrishnan, an analyst at Maplecroft, agreed that political and social differences meant that fire safety might be more important in some countries whereas forced labour, low wages or freedom to develop unions might be a priority elsewhere.
He said deals which meant retailers faced legal consequences in their home country were necessary to drive real change in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, where factory owners are a powerful lobby. Because they earn a high proportion of export income and often contribute to the major political parties they are able to lobby against workers rights moves which they believe could dent profits.
"Wages are desperately low in India and Bangladesh but manufacturers have quite a lot of political clout," he said.