Fashion brands’ continuing failure to reveal their Bangladesh suppliers is impeding progress to prevent another tragedy, say human rights campaigners. But C&A Foundation aims to use crowdsourcing to digitally map the entire Bangladesh garment sector
Six workers were killed in a Bangladesh garment factory fire last month. In July, 10 people were killed and 50 injured when a boiler exploded at another factory.
Four years after 1,100 people were killed in the Rana Plaza disaster, workers are still dying from unsafe conditions in Bangladesh garment sector, highlighting lack of progress in clothing brands’ commitments to transparency and accountability in their supply chains in the wake of the 2013 collapse.
Following what is considered the deadliest disaster in the garment industry, the Bangladesh government rushed to improve safety measures, including labour reforms regarding workers’ rights.
Two major agreements between global brands and trade unions – the European-focused Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the US-led Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety – were also signed following the tragedy. Both agreements are legally binding commitments to improve health and safety in the Bangladesh garment industry, the world’s second-largest garment exporter after China.
Today, the accord counts more than 200 signatory companies, oversees more than 1,600 factories, and covers more than 2 million workers. As of July 2017 just under 500 factories had completed more than 90% remediation, a progress overview revealed. While an improvement, the figure represents only one third of factories involved with the accord. “While millions of workers are significantly safer than four years ago, major life-threatening safety concerns remain outstanding in too many factories and need to be fixed urgently,” the accord said in a statement in April.
Reasons for slow progress are many. In an industry notorious for prioritising low prices over worker safety, the Bangladesh Accord stipulated that signatory brands must “negotiate commercial terms with their suppliers which ensure that it is financially feasible for the factories to maintain safe workplaces and comply with upgrade and remediation requirements.”
According to NGO Human Rights Watch, lack of brand supplier disclosure remains a problem. Some apparel companies publish the names and addresses of their supplier factories but do not disclose other crucial information, and have not committed to doing more, the NGO stated in a recent report.
Brands that are committed to labour rights should not only get their information from third-party auditors or in-house CSR teams
Others have committed to take steps to publish supplier factory information but with scant detail or without specifying what precisely they will disclose. The report says some brands decline to publish supplier information, citing competitive advantage and anti-competition concerns.
According to the 2017 Fashion Transparency Index, which reviews and ranks 100 of the biggest apparel brands and retailers according to how much information around supply chain policies and practices they disclose, only 31 – including Asos, Benetton, C&A, Esprit, Gap, Marks & Spencer, and Uniqlo – publish tier one supplier lists. And while some of the brands include a location, fewer than half of those disclose what types of products are made in each facility.
Indeed, following the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 the only way to identify European companies linked to the disaster was to search through the rubble for labels.
To address this fundamental lack of transparency, C&A Foundation has launched a project to digitally map the entire garment sector, including names, locations, numbers of workers, product type, export country, certifications, and brand customers.
The new mapping initiative, billed by the C&A Foundation as a ‘transformative industry shift toward more transparency”, promises to drive transparency further down the supply chain.
Naureen Chowdhury, C&A Foundation’s programme manager for supply chaininnovation and transformation, said: “Data will be collected by field workers, who will first physically visit every factory in Bangladesh.”
That data will be entered into the online map, which will be available for the public to use and manipulate, while verification will be crowdsourced to ensure that information remains up-to-date and accurate. The project team will be led by Bangladesh’s BRAC University.
The stakeholders – workers, brands, government agencies, and industry associations – are able to corroborate information directly on the map and make changes as they happen, Chowdhury explains.
We cannot go from one industry disaster to another – at the cost of workers lives – to keep driving home the point that voluntarism has failed workers
But she said getting stakeholders to use the map on a regular basis will not be easy. “We believe that many stakeholders have an interest in having accurate information and thus will contribute after the field work stage. We however acknowledge that it will be a big challenge to collect all the data, and then to keep it up to date,” Chowdhury said.
“In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, worker safety has improved and the industry has moved towards greater transparency,” Chowdhury added.
But the data from the Accord and Alliance initiatives, and disclosure of suppliers from brands, “capture only a portion of all apparel factories in Bangladesh, especially when taking into consideration tier two and subcontract factories.” She said the DRFM-B initiative will gather data from all factories in Bangladesh's 20 garment-producing districts. The final version of the map is expected to be completed by mid-2021.
Another push for increased transparency is The Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge. Spearheaded by Human Rights Watch and a coalition of INGOs and global unions, it commits companies to publish information that will enable advocates, workers, and consumers to find out where their products are being made. Crucially, companies agree to publish information identifying the factories that produce their goods.
“The transparency pledge pulls together existing good practice followed by a number of companies. It is hence a very realistic and achievable standard that brands have shown can be met,” said Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel for the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch.
“We reached out to 72 companies asking them to commit. Overall, we received a very positive response; 17 companies committed to fully align with the pledge by December 2017. And while many others fall short of the pledge, some have begun to disclose or will be disclosing a significant part of their supply chain by the end of the year.”
Equally, the Bangladesh Accord in June announced a three-year extension to May 2021. And while the Accord 2.0 has been signed by Aldi, C&A, H&M, Kmart Australia, KIK, LC Waikiki, Lidl, and Primark, more than 75% of the original 200 have not yet signed up.
Three-quarters of the original 200 signatories to the Bangladesh Accord haven’t signed up to the three-year extension
The updated agreement is said to put greater emphasis on the right of workers to organise and join a union. The inclusion of freedom of association and collective bargaining protections are perhaps the most effective safeguards against future Rana Plazas, says Kashyap of Human Rights Watch.
“This allows workers, unions, labour rights groups, and others to alert brands to any labour abuses in their factories and gives them a better opportunity to intervene and set right the problems,” she says. “Brands that are committed to labour rights should not wear blinders and limit their sources of information to third-party auditors or to their in-house CSR teams.”
Meanwhile, textile and apparel companies in Bangladesh are launching their own factory inspection and remediation initiative in parallel with the Accord. The newly proposed platform, Shonman – the Bengali word for respect – seeks to increase workplace safety in the Bangladesh garment sector via a local organisation, a goal consistent with the Accord, which hopes a Bangladesh-based regulatory body will take over its work by 2021.
However many believe legislation will be needed to really move the dial. “Mandatory laws stipulating human rights due-diligence requirements are essential,” Kashyap believes. “They create a level playing field in the industry and make sure brands that are not voluntarily following good industry practices are legally obligated to do so.”
The updated agreement puts emphasis on the right of workers to organise and join a union
The Clean Clothes Campaign, an international alliance dedicated to improving working conditions in the global garment industry, welcomes the recent motion by the European Parliament on the EU Flagship Initiative on the garment sector, which seeks to introduce mandatory due diligence and transparency in textile supply chains.
In April, 73 signatories penned an open letter to European Commission, urging it to ”develop a smart mix of rules that will include binding regulation on human rights due diligence, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. At the very least, supply chains must be made transparent so that a garment company can be linked to the different parts of its supply chain.”
Kashyap agrees. “Even four years after the Rana Plaza collapse, many companies have not taken the steps they should be voluntarily,” she says. “We cannot go from one industry disaster to another – at the cost of workers lives – to keep driving home the point that voluntarism has failed workers. Brands that don’t throw their weight behind such mandatory due diligence standards will certainly stand out in their hollow commitment to worker rights.”
This is part of a package of articles on the push for greater transparency in the garment industry. See also:
New apps to keep tabs on the factory floor
Not so fast: Millennials press fashion brands for greater transparency
The female micro-entrepreneurs disrupting India's garment trade
Fashion brands 'failing to heed warnings on viscose production'