Sweatshops are the norm in the global apparel industry. We're standing up to change that.
2012-2015 has seen some of the largest garment industry disasters on global record: the Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan in September 2012, the Tazreen Fashions fire in Bangladesh in November 2012, the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013, and the Kentex factory fire in the Philippines in May 2015. Cumulatively, these horrific incidents – which could have been prevented with proper implementation of legally-required health and safety measures – resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,600 garment workers in less than three years.
These catastrophes are but the latest evidence of two decades of failures of global corporations’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs in protecting workers. These programs promote voluntary and unenforceable safety and labor rights commitments, keep vital compliance information confidential, exclude workers and their organizations from monitoring and compliance activities, and often impede efforts to improve national labor justice and inspections systems (e.g., corporate auditors do not share monitoring results with labor inspectors).
Until recently corporate-controlled social auditing programs have been remarkably successful in protecting corporate reputations and brand images when faced with anti-sweatshop, fair trade, and other corporate accountability movements. Companies have used CSR programs to claim responsible treatment of workers in the supply chain, while rejecting legal responsibility for workers’ safety or welfare, shifting it wholly to contractor factories and local governments. These programs have, in fact, contributed to the growth of a global industry founded on the idea of underpaid and disposable workers, an industry that regularly churns out poverty wages, exhausting working hours, and abusive working conditions that gradually rob workers of their health and vitality, and, sometimes, produces dramatic deadly events like fires and building collapses.
Bangladesh is the poster child for the failures of corporate-controlled social auditing. Bangladeshi garment workers are the lowest paid of any garment workers in the world, earning a minimum wage which, after the latest increase, is no more than US$68 per month. Low wages are compounded by the near absence of a social safety net and the minimal compensation for a worker who dies or is injured at work. Building and fire safety standards in the factories are notoriously poor, resulting in preventable worker deaths and injuries with alarming regularity. And workers’ efforts to organize for better conditions and higher wages are often violently repressed by police, security forces, and hired thugs.
Following the recent factory fires and building collapse in Bangladesh, the failures of corporate-controlled social auditing have been exposed and debated like rarely before in the mainstream media. The credibility of most major corporations on worker safety and labor rights is now at a low point, while ILRF and allied organizations have gained increased legitimacy as a voice for sensible solutions. The crisis for garment workers and the gravity of the publicly exposed failures of corporate-controlled social auditing practices have created a new political and cultural space that allows us to imagine and work towards a new labor rights compliance model that would have had little public legitimacy a year ago. Our demands are now achievable.
In this moment—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory moment of our time—using public education, policy advocacy, and communications strategies, we can support workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively through winning demands that:
- Apparel brands and retailers sign contracts with global and national trade unions, requiring them to work with their suppliers to remediate violations and ensure safe and decent working conditions; and
- Government adopts enforceable requirements for transparency and labor rights protections in supply chains.
Advancing this new vision for corporate accountability will benefit greatly from the success of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which ILRF and our allies helped develop and to which we are a witness signatory. The Accord is a groundbreaking, legally-binding agreement between Bangladeshi and global unions and more than 200 apparel companies, under which the companies make a binding contractual commitment to ensure workers’ safety.
We are currently seeing more media, government, and public attention on the garment industry since sweatshop issues hit the front pages in the 1990s, and we are seizing this historic opportunity to redefine corporate accountability in a way that will ultimately also impact workers outside of Bangladesh as well as beyond the garment industry.