(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
Critics describe it as industrial homicide, and some of the world’s leading multi-national retailers are accused of being complicit.
This is because they’re sourcing clothes made by garment workers in Bangladesh who are sometimes paying with their lives so Westerners can buy cheap clothing.
Over the past 12 months, more than a thousand workers have perished in clothing factory accidents in a country that’s become the second largest exporter of garments after China.
Greg Dyett reports.
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The clothing export industry is worth $20 billion to Bangladesh, by far the country’s biggest source of export income.
In recent years, big brand Western retailers have turned to Bangladesh for raw materials and finished clothing because the cost of production is now cheaper than China’s.
But critics say it’s a lethal trade, where workers are exploited and corruption is rife.
Undercover investigations by journalists have found some factories forcing workers to do 19 hour shifts.
They’re locked inside the buildings which have become deathtraps when a fire breaks out.
In April, more than 11 hundred people died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka – the country’s worst industrial accident.
Many other clothing workers have died in fires and other accidents.
Western clothing retailers are now being put under pressure by activists and trade unions to do more to prevent such deaths.
Michele O’Neil is the National Secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia.
“Bangladesh has grown because it’s so much cheaper than China, as has Cambodia, as has Sri Lanka, as has India so those four countries are all significantly cheaper to manufacture garments in now than China but we still have a problem across the globe so it is important to not just think this is a Bangladesh issue, it’s an issue about trying to lift the standards of the workers that make our clothes around the world.”
Michele O’Neil’s union is encouraging Australians to put pressure on retailers to get them to sign what’s known as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.
She says if retailers are going to source from one of the cheapest places in the world, they have to take responsibility for the supply chain.
The accord provides for sanctions for non-compliance.
“It’s enforceable by law in that countries of origin of those companies that are actually signatories to it, so it’s not relying on a corrupt legal system in Bangladesh. It’s also genuinely multi stakeholder so it has the involvement of trade unions both in Bangladesh and globally. It involves the businesses, it involves civil society organisations and community campaign organisations in supporting it also and has ILO involvement so it is important because it has those characteristics, sometimes companies make commitments or sign on to codes or deeds or the like that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, we think this accord has some substance to it.”
In the case of Australia, Michele O’Neil says five companies have signed on: Target, K Mart, Cotton On, Forever New and the Speciality Fashion Group which is Katies and Millers.
Woolworths is not among the signatories – at least not yet.
Woolworths, which owns Big W, provided this statement to SBS.
“Big W and Woolworths is committed to ensuring the factories with whom we work with provide safe working conditions for their employees. We have strict sourcing guidelines in place around ethical sourcing. All factories in Bangladesh from which BIG W sources products have been audited over the last 12 months.We have been working through a number of issues with (our) industrial (department) and on the proposed implementation of the Accord in Bangladesh. We support the aim of the Accord and have already indicated our intention to sign in the near future.”
Associate Professor of International Business at RMIT University in Melbourne, Sharif as-Saber is a native of Bangladesh.
He says one of the critical issues is governance.
“Companies will need to maintain efficiency but they need more profit, they need quality products but that should not be at the expense of workers rights that should not be at the expense of human rights and that needs to be assured and that insurance should be provided not only by the government of Bangladesh, that insurance should be provided by other governments linked to the product and marketing and the markets and also on United Nations agencies including International Labour Organisation.”
Professor as-Saber says while maximising profits companies will always be the overriding objective of business, he’s convinced the Western multi-nationals will recognise the benefits of improving the lot of the garment workers.
“I think in the longer term it is very much to their benefit because they’re securing a market, they’re creating a market, they’re building a market more sustainable in nature and at the same time people are benefiting and they’re also benefitting and the outrage among the population globally will be minimised and they will be regarded as sustainable producers and suppliers.”