With over 1,100 lives lost, the Bangladesh factory tragedy has placed a magnifying glass over the issue of labour exploitation. From beneath the rubble, stories of survival and loss emerge – the faces behind the fashion tags.
The discovery of Western brands within the ruins of the Rana Plaza Factory has raised questions over the nature of global trade.
With China’s booming economy and increasing wages, the search for cheap labour has shifted to poorer countries like Bangladesh. The 3,200 workers at Rana Plaza were amongst almost 4 million others in Bangladesh’s huge $US20 billion garment industry – an industry that accounts for 75 per cent of Bangladesh’s total export earnings.
Oxfam Australia’s labour coordinator, Daisy Gardener, describes a common “race to the bottom” phenomenon where companies aim to get the cheapest possible price from factories. According to Ms Gardener, less factory funding means poorer working conditions, more pressure on employees to work faster and less flexibility to negotiate higher wages.
Another issue is when long-supply chains lack transparency. Ethical Clothing Australia’s website states: “It does not take long before a brand can lose track of the various participants in its own supply chain and its garments can end up being made in illegal sweatshops or backyard workshops.”
Imagine you are one of the many young women who work in garment factories across Asia. During peak season, you often stay back until 3am just to meet the high production targets. Sometimes, you cannot even take toilet breaks. You also run the risk of getting repetitive strain injury from your long shifts at the sewing machine. Being unaware of your work rights and the company’s code of conduct (if there is one) makes you vulnerable to exploitation. These are the conditions many garment workers face, according to Oxfam. In Bangladesh alone, more than 460 workers died in fires from 2006 to 2010.
In response to the Bangladesh tragedy, Oxfam Australia has now directed its attention to Australian retailers known to have factories in Bangladesh such as Target, Cotton On, Kmart, Big W, the Just Group and Pacific Brands. According to Ms Gardener, these brands are currently “secretive” about the location of their factories; this makes it difficult for independent groups to verify ethical working conditions.
A common response from these retailers has been to point to their auditing programs and codes of conduct. Ms Gardener says these measures are a good first step but are not enough. She gives the example of Britain’s clothing brand, Primark, which was found in the collapsed Rana Plaza factory. “Primark does also have codes of conduct for their factories and they also conduct auditing but they were nonetheless found in this very unsafe condition,” she said.
Thus, Oxfam is asking Australian retailers to publicly release their factory locations so that independent groups such as NGOs and unions can “double check” that codes of conduct are actually upheld. Oxfam further advocates that retailers sign the 2012 Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which is legally binding. The agreement calls for independent inspections, compulsory repairs and worker rights training. It also mandates that retailers pay supplier factories enough money to make safe working conditions feasible.
A Cotton On spokesperson believes its factories are paid a fair price. Cotton On revealed that it has 10 vendors in Bangladesh. The reasons it gave for not publically releasing factory locations were “due to commercial sensitivities and IP [Intellectual Property] protection”. As of mid-May, Cotton On said it was still reviewing the Fire and Building Safety Agreement in detail.
On May 16, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Target, Woolworths, Big W and Kmart had refused to sign the Fire and Building Safety Agreement.
Though their factory locations are kept secret, both Target and Cotton On have claimed to engage independent external auditors. However, the regularity of these independent audits is unclear. Cotton On’s own team conducted 156 audits in the past 12 months. Cotton On further said: “We will also continue to engage independent external auditors, over and above our current internal Cotton On Group Ethical Auditing team.”
Target said it works with independent third parties to conduct factory audits. Last year, there were 895 audits. According to the Target spokesperson: “All auditing occurs independently of our buying and sourcing teams to ensure neutrality.”
If Target detects breaches, factories are deregistered as suppliers immediately, according to the Target spokesperson. However, with almost 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh, Ms Gardener says, “the last thing we want is to see more workers lose their jobs”. Rather than pulling orders out, companies should stay with factories and help improve conditions, Ms Gardener said.
For concerned customers, here is Oxfam’s advice: the next time you go shopping, check the label and see where the item is made. Write a message to the company – via Facebook or website – saying you expect them to be more transparent, to pay a fair price to suppliers and to work harder in ensuring decent working conditions. “No brand is too big to listen to its customers,” Ms Gardener said. “We know this works. We’ve seen companies like Nike, Adidas and Puma respond to major consumer pressure by releasing the locations of their supplier factories.”
Like us, Bangladeshi people need jobs. And like us, they have the right to safe and decent working conditions.
UPDATE (7 June 2013): On June 7, Kmart and Target Australia agreed to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement. Cotton On and Big W have not signed.
Published in the South Sydney Herald, front page, June 2013.