Today marks the two-year anniversary of the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh. It also marks the second Fashion Revolution Day, launched last year to commemorate the Rana Plaza disaster with the aims of encouraging greater collaboration across the fashion sector supply chain.
The Rana Plaza disaster has been said to be a “wake-up call,” an “eye-opener,” a “game-changer” and the “end of business as usual” in the global garment supply chain, and it has changed the garment industry landscape in Bangladesh and led to many improvements in the fashion supply chain. Western clothing companies, trade unions and the Bangladeshi government have taken steps to improve workplace safety. The legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety, run by European brands and retailers, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, led by North American retailers, were formed to ensure safer working conditions at the bottom of the supply chain. A series of inspections in Bangladeshi factories are being conducted, contributing towards better working conditions in Bangladesh and hopefully across fashion supply chains worldwide.
While these developments are encouraging, more needs to be done to accelerate efforts to tackle safety hazards in the factories of low-cost manufacturing countries.
Sedex data shows that more than half (52 percent) of all issues raised in ethical audits on the Sedex system globally over the past two years are related to health and safety. The highest risks in the garment sector in Bangladesh are related to fire safety: 25 percent of audits on the Sedex system show problems with fire safety in Bangladesh. Fire safety concerns are also at the top of risks in other garment-producing countries — Pakistan (19 percent), China (18 percent) and India (17 percent) — endangering the lives of workers and posing a big risk to brands, suppliers and investors. Other major risks include building safety, labour rights, working hours, machinery and lack of personal protective equipment and clothing.
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The Bangladesh Accord looks predominately at fire and building safety in Bangladesh, but fashion supply chains are affected by many other issues. Garment workers in Bangladesh face poor working conditions and issues around freedom of association, according to the latest report by Human Rights Watch. Countries need to effectively enforce labour laws and ensure that garment workers are able to voice their concerns about safety and working conditions, without fear of being fired, intimidated or assaulted. There is also need to investigate unfair labour practices and ensure workers are paid a living wage.
The garment, textiles, clothing and footwear industry is among the most labour-intensive industries, estimated to employ more than 60 million people worldwide; there are more than four million garment workers in Bangladesh alone. But the costs for garment production in Asia are rising, and the garment industry is increasingly moving to other regions — Africa, for example. As these new markets are preparing for an influx of new business — building new factories to employ a huge amount of local people — it is crucial to ensure that safety requirements are built in from the very beginning.
The global fashion industry has the power to change its supply chain and positively impact working conditions. Collaboration is key here, amongst the Sedex global community we see real progress when buyers and suppliers collaborate between all levels of the supply chain. Leading companies are looking beyond the usual boundaries of responsible sourcing to consider the wider context around responsible sourcing challenges. For example, Marks & Spencer is going outside its factories into communities, working towards empowering women and improving livelihoods of workers.
Change is happening, slowly but steadily. Collaboration among companies, government and NGOs is essential in delivering improvements in working conditions and ensuring workers' well-being throughout global supply chains.