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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Is It Ethical To Keep Buying Clothes From Bangladesh?

A recent edition of Panorama “Dying for a Bargain” reported the continuing concern about working conditions in Bangladesh focusing on long shifts and dangerous working conditions. But was Richard Bilton’s summary that “Retailers say they want to change but it feels like it’s money that is still calling the shots in the factories of Bangladesh” a balanced view and if it was should more retailers follow the example of Walt Disney Co and cease production in the country?

To understand why I would argue that the answer to that question is “No” first requires a little history and a few salient facts:

When Bangladesh gained its independence from Pakistan in The Liberation War of 1971 the newly formed government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman nationalised the textile industry creating a state owned enterprise called the Bangladesh Textile Mills Corporation (BTMC). 

The role of BTMC within the textile industry was substantially altered from around 1990 by the denationalisation of a large number of public sector textile mills. Since then the number of workers employed in the $19 billion industry has risen from 400,000 in 1990 to around 4 million, most of them women. Bangladesh is second only to China as an apparel exporter of western brands with 60% of contracts being European buyers. Only 5% of factories are foreign owned, with most of the production being controlled by local investors.

The textile and clothing industry is vital to economic growth and the encouragement of the garment industry as an open trade regime is argued to be a much more effective form of assistance than foreign aid.

But can well known global retailers remain true to their ethical standards following horrific events such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza building?

As Sara Hossain, a high-court lawyer in Bangladesh says “The question should not be shutting down the factories. It should be how do you make employment safe and secure.” The Ethical Trading Initiative reports that rather than focusing anger on the role of the brands the media reporting in Dhaka has concentrated almost exclusively on the failure by government agencies to implement the law on occupational safety and health and the building code. “This in turn is blamed on the nexus between garment factory owners and politicians – sometimes the same people”.

The extent of the law breaking is staggering. Since 2008 any new structure has to obtain an occupancy certificate from a government agency before it can be used for any purpose. Since that date only 6 certificates have been issued. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 new buildings have been constructed each year. Retail brands cannot be expected to police law breaking of this magnitude; it must be for the government to get a grip.

In May 2013 BBC News Asia reported that many textile factories near the capital Dhaka had been shut on safety grounds due to widespread unrest amongst workers. 

I currently work with well-run factories in Bangladesh, with responsible owners and good working conditions but this disruption has resulted in delivery failures with the result that I am now reluctantly pulling back on volume orders.

The government has taken some actions, amending the 2006 Labour Act to lift restrictions on forming trade unions and creating a new panel of union representatives and factory workers to raise the minimum wage, which is still one of the lowest in the world. According to Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity this may not be enough as “In the past whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beating and harassment”.

“It’s the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens” says Alonzo Suson, Bangladesh country director for The Solidarity Centre a labour rights organisation, “It’s not the brand’s responsibility to do that”.

The Panorama programme reported that a million textile workers in Bangladesh are still subject to unacceptably dangerous working conditions but as shocking as this is it means that 75% of the people working in the industry are doing so safely for reputable factory owners that comply with the codes of conduct demanded by their brand clients.

Retailers shouldn’t increase the suffering by “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” (Sara Hossain) but need to ensure that they only partner with these owners and the people with the real power, the customers who buy fast fashion, should demand that they do.

Written by Erica Vilkauls: Director JEM Retail Consultants

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