Avoiding workplace disaster: UK govt summons 20 retailers
Primark, Tesco and Marks & Spencer were among 20 retailers summoned to a UK government summit as ministers sought steps to prevent a repeat of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,132 people, reported the UK-based newspaper The Guardian.
The government wants to use its muscle to help drive up standards in factories supplying UK retailers after the disaster at a complex that supplied clothing bought by British shoppers, the newspaper added.
About 20 retailers, including Primark, which bought clothing from a factory within Rana Plaza, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Topshop's owner, Arcadia, were called into the Department for International Development (DfID) on Wednesday to discuss how to avoid another catastrophe in future.
Justine Greening, the secretary of state for international development, and the cabinet minister Alan Duncan hosted a "frank" and "robust" discussion about how clothing could be produced responsibly.
Greening said: "Bangladesh's tragic factory collapse earlier this year was a wake-up call about the urgent need to improve safety standards for employees in developing countries."
One idea raised at the meeting was a quality assurance scheme similar to the Kitemark, which would help shoppers identify products made with the best ethical standards. The DfID also offered to help provide social, political and economic insight for retailers to help them invest responsibly in developing countries, which could work alongside government aid projects.
The UK has donated £18m towards safety and skills training for Bangladeshi factory workers and the government is also offering technical support and advice on standards. Greening said Wednesday's meeting was the "beginning of a process" to encourage retailers to use their influence to help bring about change.
The pressure group Labour Behind the Label welcomed government involvement in the debate on how to improve labour conditions in factories supplying goods to Britain.
But Anna McMullen, a campaigner, said any guarantee of ethical standards, such as a Kitemark, would be difficult to implement in the short term because of the prevalence of poor conditions in factories producing clothing in developing countries. She said suggesting that some factories were good was not giving an accurate picture to shoppers because these benchmarks were only likely to relate to a generally poor standard.
McMullen added: "Government does have a role to play in laying down standards for British businesses but this needs to be done in consultation with workers, unions and people who have an interest in human rights."
Retailers have already begun to make changes to the way they monitor clothing factories that supply them in the wake of several factory fires in Bangladesh and the Rana Plaza disaster in April. The building collapsed after the owners built two additional floors without permission, while inspectors continued to allow the business to operate.
The incident involved manufacturers working for up to 40 companies, including Primark and the British retailers Matalan and Bonmarché. Before the collapse of Rana Plaza, no retailer was checking the structural integrity of their suppliers' buildings. Now, more than 50 brands have signed up to a legally binding building safety agreement backed by the international trade union IndustriALL and the Bangladeshi government.
Under the deal, brands including H&M and Marks & Spencer, as well as Primark, have each agreed to contribute up to $500,000 (£325,000) a year towards rigorous independent factory inspections and the installation of fire safety measures.
Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability policy for the industry trade association the British Retail Consortium, who attended the meeting at the DfID, said: "It was a very positive meeting and a great opportunity to see how we can harness the best of international aid together with investment from retailers around the rights of workers but also on issues of development and job creation in developing countries."