/ 2 August 2013

Retailers roped in to help ensure factory worker safety

The 2006 forensic report prepared for Zuma's trial that never saw the light of day ... now made available in the public interest.
The outcome of the ANC’s long-awaited KwaZulu-Natal conference was a win for the Thuma Mina crowd. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Workers rights groups are calling on retailers to use a legally binding deal to improve safety for clothes factory workers in Bangladesh as a blueprint for tackling similar problems elsewhere.

IndustriALL, the international union group that is backing the deal between textile workers and more than 70 retailers to tackle fire safety and building security in Bangladesh, said it had already begun work to build a similar agreement in Pakistan.

It comes amid evidence that workers in Pakistan and China face greater workplace risks than those in Bangladesh.

Retailers such as Primark, Marks & Spencer and Hennes & Mauritz agreed to independent factory inspections and actions to improve buildings in Bangladesh after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in April killed more than 1 100 people.

Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL, said many of those retailers also produced goods in Pakistan and could sign up to a second deal.

“The strategy of working through the global supply chain does work and should be a blueprint for countries beyond Bangladesh,” he said.

Raina believes the Bangladeshi deal, on which talks had started two years before the Rana Plaza collapse put it in the spotlight, was likely to be effective because retailers had promised funds for factory inspections, changes and rebuilding, and faced legal repercussions if they did not co-operate.

Bangladesh, however, is ranked only the 17th-worst country on a labour rights and protection index put together by global risk consultancy Maplecroft and referred to by major retailers around the world.

The index takes into account factors including working conditions, forced or child labour and the freedom to form unions. Pakistan and China are ranked the third- and fourth-worst places to work, respectively, behind the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma.

More than half of the clothing factories inspected in Bangladesh and Pakistan failed to meet fire safety standards, according to Sedex, a non-profit group that compiles ethical audit data for companies to monitor their supply chain.

In both countries, safety issues such as blocked fire exits or a lack of alarms were the biggest single problems identified by inspectors, ahead of long working hours, low wages and the use of child labour.

Other countries did not fare much better. More than 40% of clothing factories in China, India and Turkey failed fire safety inspections.

Sam Maher, a campaigner at pressure group Labour Behind the Label, said Sedex’s findings were likely to be the tip of the iceberg. “These issues are completely systemic and relate to the way the industry operates,” she said.

But Maher said factory safety agreements in other countries could not just be cut and pasted from the deal in Bangladesh.

“The key principles are legal influence, the involvement of workers’ representatives and full building inspections, but that has to be looked at in the context of each country.”

Arvind Ramakrishnan, an analyst at Maplecroft, said deals that meant retailers faced legal consequences in their home country were necessary to drive change in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, where factory owners are a powerful lobby. — © Guardian News & Media 2013