Across the globe, brands, manufacturers and employers are becoming more aware of the urgent need to address worker exploitation in global supply chains. Through the development of new cross-industry collaborations and technological solutions, industry leaders hope to put an end to forced labor.
Four years after the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013, global trade unions and key players in the fashion industry have moved to renew the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety, a three-year legally binding agreement that will enter into effect when the current program expires in May 2018.
Over a thousand Bangladeshi garment factories will be covered under the new Accord, which has so far been signed by Aldi North, Aldi South, C&A, H&M, IndustriALL Global Union, Kmart Australia, KIK, LC Waikiki, Lidl, Loblaw, Otto, Primark, PVH, Target Australia, Tchibo and UNI Global Union.
“Brands’ renewed commitment to factory safety in Bangladesh is a vote of confidence in the Accord,” said Valter Sanches, General Secretary of IndustriALL. “The Accord is, at present, the only credible option for health and safety in Bangladesh garment factories. It shows that industrial relations can be used to save lives and improve global supply chains.”
The agreement builds on the first Bangladesh Accord, which was signed in May 2013, adding new worker protections to the Accord’s existing legally binding framework and commitment to transparency. Additionally, it extends independent building safety inspections for all covered factories for an additional three years. The move will ensure that safety improvements made under the first Accord are maintained and that any new problems will be addressed.
The first Accord saw engineers carry out fire, electrical and structural safety inspections at more than 1,800 factories, identifying 118,500 hazards. Seventy-nine percent of workplace dangers identified in the Accord’s original round of inspections have been remediated.
“Over the past four years, unions and worker safety organizations have worked together with global brands within the Accord to find a solution to the seemingly intractable problem of dangerous factories in Bangladesh. Many said that change was not possible. We’ve proven them wrong. Our aim is to create a global economy which respects the lives and dignity of all workers and the Accord is a big step along that path. The 2018 Accord will continue the forward motion,” said Christy Hoffman, Deputy General Secretary of UNI Global Union.
The updated agreement puts greater emphasis on the right of workers to organize and join a union, highlighting the importance of worker empowerment in assuring workplace safety. It also includes continued training of workers in health and safety protocols and enhanced protections for workers whose factories are closed or relocated due to the implementation of the agreement.
In addition to protecting workers, the Accord serves as a valuable tool for investors who are increasingly looking at brands’ environmental and social impacts to inform decision-making and safeguard against reputational and financial risk.
“Since the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013, ICCR has organized a coalition of over 200 institutional investors from 12 countries and representing $4.5 trillion assets under management in support of the Accord,” said David Schilling, Senior Program Director of Human Rights for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). “The Accord’s multi-stakeholder model is an unprecedented collaboration between trade unions and apparel companies and retailers seeking systemic transformation of the Bangladesh garment sector into a safe place to work. As the program has been extremely successful, investors are very eager to see it have the needed time to fulfill its mandate.”
“An impressive amount of work has been completed, but the work is not yet finished. As investors, we applaud those companies who have been leading this historic intiative designed to mitigate these unacceptable risks to companies, shareholders and workers alike,” said Adam Kanzer, Managing Director of Domini Impact Investments. “We are particularly pleased to see the inclusion of freedom of association and collective bargaining protections, perhaps the most effective safeguard against future Rana Plazas.”
Meanwhile, Good World Solutions, through its mobile survey platform Laborlink, has developed a set of guidelines to help companies develop technological solutions that identify and address worker abuse and exploitation in global supply chains.
Technology has emerged as a powerful tool to connect with workers and address human rights abuses, but many such solutions fall short of the mark. With the development of the Worker Engagement Supported by Technology (WEST) Principles, Good World Solutions seeks to align all actors around a set of design and implementation guidelines to collectively develop a roadmap to operationalize their use and ensure technology is leveraged for good.
The WEST Principles were developed in consultation with stakeholders across supply chains, including brands, NGOs, industry leaders and issue experts. They are implemented in four phases — design, engage, analyze and utilize data — and encompasses the following eight principles:
- Starting with integrity and purpose;
- Using worker-centric and inclusive design;
- Building trust with workers;
- Facilitating uptake and ownership;
- Managing security and risk;
- Evaluating outcomes and processes;
- Informing decisions and system changes; and
- Collaborating and sharing learnings.
Laborlink, which is operated by Good World Solutions in partnership with Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, American Eagle Outfitters, C&A, Levi Strauss Foundation, Marks & Spencer and Primark, uses mobile technology to survey factory works, giving brands real-time insight into factory conditions, safety, working hours and wages across their supply chains. The platform’s unique model improves the reliability of data by sourcing information from a wider pool of workers.
Target is one of the first companies to endorse the WEST Principles in an effort to meets its goal of improving worker well-being and eliminating forced labor across the supply chain. Last year, Brain Cornell, CEO of Target, joined the board of the Consumer Goods Forum and agreed to champion the group’s Resolution on Forced Labor. The commitment includes the adoption of three key principles: that every worker should have freedom of movement, no worker should pay for a job and no worker should be indebted or coerced to work.
The company has also partnered with Laborlink and Verité, a nonprofit providing consulting, training, research and assessment services to businesses so that workers operate under safe, fair and legal conditions.
Together with Laborlink, the companies are launching an 18-month project in Northern India where migrant workers from eight factories and 10 villages will be invited to participate in free and anonymous Laborlink surveys focused on working and living conditions and recruitment practices. This is the first time Laborlink will be used at this scale to gather information on factors of forced labor at the community level. The results will be used to help guide local NGO partners on how to build educational programs to best address the needs of the community members.
With the help of Verité, the company will develop policies to protect foreign contract workers in the supply chain, setting clear expectations for suppliers and laying out procedures, standards and verification mechanisms that will allow Target to zero in on risk areas.
“By engaging with workers and community members directly, we can better understand the risks of forced labor at the local level,” said Beth Holzman, acting Executive Director of Laborlink by Good World Solutions. “This data collected creates an opportunity to inform and strengthen tangible actions that can be taken to prevent and reduce the number of workers who become entrapped in situations of forced labor.”