Lessons of Dhaka: the united action plan that could prevent sweatshop disasters

Aron Cramer

The factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, which claimed 1,127 lives, has refocused the world’s attention on the plight of underpaid, overworked garment workers in developing countries. But new technology could help hold factory owners to account

The world of business – along with consumers, governments and workers’ advocates – has been grappling with labour conditions in global supply chains for more than two decades. The recent tragedy in Bangladesh, along with smaller, but still fatal, accidents in Cambodia and China remind us that, unfortunately, the past 20 years have failed to deliver the systemic change that is so badly needed.

While aspects of Bangladesh’s clothing industry are unique to that country – multi-storey buildings that present serious safety issues, systematic intimidation of NGOs and labour leaders – many of the problems are present everywhere the garment industry calls home. It is undeniable that the industry has provided a valuable entry point for many people – notably women – to join the formal economy. It is also the case that many efforts over the past two decades have yielded improvements in working conditions. But it is equally clear that excessive overtime, sub-legal wages, and serious health and safety practices continue to plague the millions of workers who clock in at apparel factories in all corners of the world.

As these distressing events continue to unfold, it is time to pursue new actions. It is also high time we put to rest some myths that have shaped the debate for the past 20 years.

First, governments need to get back in the game. Many national governments have been quite content to ‘outsource’ the establishment and enforcement of labour laws to large international retailers and the factory monitors they deploy. The paucity of labour inspectors in countries like Bangladesh allows factory owners to evade compliance, with even the most basic requirements. Governments of countries that benefit from production in Bangladesh should not let this continue. Renewed efforts by the United States and the European Union to make access to their markets conditional on tough – and enforced – labour laws in exporting countries is a good first step.

Second, policing factories is less important than implementing responsible purchasing practices. All too often, companies find their labels in factories that they never approved for production. This continues to happen because of the merry-go-round production model that encourages factories to bid for work at a price or schedule they know they cannot meet. As a result, these factories may then outsource to shadowy sub-contractors that cut corners more effectively than they cut fabric. The price of clothing has been coming down in real terms for a quarter of a century, and while this is good news for consumers, it has also pushed production to factories with no commitment to ensure fair working conditions.

Third, technology may be part of the solution. Fair labour? There’s an app for that. More and more companies are looking for ways supply chain workers can use smartphone apps or SMS messages to report concerns directly to global brands. The march of technology is making our global supply chains more transparent, and this may shift power back to the workers who have not been able to assert their own interests. But all the technology in the world won’t reach its potential if workers are not able to employ internationally recognised rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining – rights that are sharply limited in China and Bangladesh, the two largest garment-producing countries.

Fourth, while attention tends to fi x on individual brands, collaboration is the only way to achieve systemic change. The Better Work programme, a joint effort of the International Labour Organisation and the International Finance Corporation, has had significant successes in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam by bringing together governments, buyers and suppliers, and trade unions to establish consistent, systematic improvements through joint training and incentives. It is much easier to take a system-wide approach by focusing on individual countries and inviting all stakeholders to the table. And while it is early days, the Bangladesh Accord – signed by many large retailers and supported by governments and trade unions – also holds promise.

Each of these ideas has the potential to improve workers’ lives, health and dignity, while creating a stable, sustainable supply chain. But real progress will happen only when all of them are pursued together.

For the past two decades, the garment industry has created employment opportunities for workers, lower prices for consumers and profits for manufacturers and retailers. These things are all valuable. But too often, workers have paid the price of these benefits – sometimes with life and limb.

The tragedy at Rana Plaza is one we cannot allow to have happen again. It’s time to take the steps we know will achieve real change.

About the author:

Aron Cramer is president and CEO of BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. He is also co-author of the book Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World


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