The tragic collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,000 people, has forced the international clothing retailers sourcing from Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi government to reevaluate business practices in this sector.
Bangladesh’s garment industry is the second-largest in the world, after China’s. The collapse of the Rana Plaza is the latest of several incidents that have focused international attention on safety standards for workers in this industry. European and American companies in particular have come under pressure to exert more oversight over their suppliers.
As a result, many prominent international clothing retailers have chosen to sign the “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, which is a legally binding document that is the initiative of two labor groups. The agreement will force companies to pay for thorough and independent inspections and blacklist noncompliant factories.
Major companies including Zara owner Inditex, H&M, Tesco, C&A, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Primark have signed the accord. Prominently abstaining from signing, however, are important American retailers such as Gap, Walmart and Sears, who object to a clause in the accord related to the resolution of disputes. Other non-signatories include British giants Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s.
The Bangladeshi government has also taken steps to improve conditions in the garment industry, changing the country’s labor laws to allow garment workers to more form unions without requiring the permission of factory owners and contemplating lifting the minimum wage in the sector.
The expansion and increasing complexity of global supply chains has greatly complicated the ability of companies to properly exert oversight on their suppliers, or their suppliers’ suppliers. The signing of this accord is only one small way in which international clothing retailers sourcing from Bangladesh to behave more responsibly. However, much work remains to be done to safeguard the rights of workers at every stage of this industry’s supply chain. Many of the companies in this sector have declared their commitment to corporate social responsibility; it is time for them to start working harder to practice what they preach.
– Caroline Poterio Martinez