last modified 28-08-2019 08:54

New safety initiative launched in India today ignores vital lessons from the past

published 28-08-2019 10:00, last modified 27-08-2019 20:34
A building safety initiative launching in India today, aimed at improving safety for workers in the country’s garment industry, is set on a path to ignore workers’ voices and replicate mistakes from the past. Although the “Life and Building Safety Initiative” professes to learn from the programme that made factories safe in Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza building collapse, it ignores its most vital elements.
New safety initiative launched in India today ignores vital lessons from the past

All employee meeting on safety as part of the Accord programme in Bangladesh

The Life and Building Safety (LABS) Initiative, developed by the Dutch “Sustainable Trade Initiative” IDH, launched its “industry-driven” safety programme in Vietnam earlier this month and launches its India programme today. Participating companies are Bestseller, Gap Inc., PVH, Target, VF Corporation, and Walmart. LABS announced it is planning expansion into Pakistan and Cambodia in 2020.

Building safety in the garment industry became a world-wide concern after 1,134 workers died in the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. This led to the establishment of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord), a ground-breaking legally-binding and enforceable programme with unprecedented levels of transparency and worker involvement. A group of largely North-American brands and retailers shied away from joining over 200 of their peers in signing the Accord and established their own non-binding, less enforceable, less transparent, and less inclusive initiative, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance).

“It is telling that four of the brands now behind the LABS initiative were main movers behind the Alliance as a business-controlled alternative to the Accord,” said Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum. “Walmart, Gap, VF, and Target have consistently rejected our calls to sign the Bangladesh Accord -- why would the initiative pushed by them now be trusted to draw on the lessons of the Accord and put workers’ well-being over business interests?”

LABS promises to “build on the learnings and experiences” from Bangladesh. This led several news outlets to report that LABS’ programme is based on the Accord experiences or “taking the Accord” to other countries. However, LABS is a voluntary brand initiative without union participation that lacks binding mechanisms to hold the participating brands accountable. Even though LABS claims to have transparency as one of its core principles, vital resources that LABS promises to make public, such as its standards and factory assessments, are currently still in the members-only part of its website.

Most strikingly, instead of LABS replicating the Accord’s strong mechanisms to enforce safety measures in factories through collective member brand leverage, LABS continues the corporate practice to audit and ignore. Even if factories consistently fail to remediate the safety issues uncovered by LABS, the programme leaves it to member brands’ individual decisions whether they want to continue to source from these suppliers. Instead of employing and training its own engineers like the Accord does, LABS places its trust in the same corporate social auditing firms that failed to prevent large-scale casualties in the past, including the foreseeable disaster of the Rana Plaza collapse and the deadly factory fires at the Tazreen and Ali Enterprises factories of 2012.

“LABS’ programme of inspecting factories without ultimately ensuring that the found safety risks are addressed, is a disaster waiting to happen. Brands like Walmart, whose audits failed to address the clear death trap of the Tazreen factory, should know that such false assurances have deadly consequences. The Bangladesh Accord is a carefully designed package of measures that circumvents the many flaws of the corporate social auditing system. Just shopping some elements from it will render the result meaningless. A safety initiative without the same level of worker participation, transparency, and binding and enforceable elements is only perpetuating business-driven initiatives of the past that failed to prevent thousands of worker deaths,” says Ineke Zeldenrust of Clean Clothes Campaign.

“LABS Initiative for India is an eyewash and adds no value. It is part of the multi-billion dollar PR exercise brands do to cover up and evade serious commitment to improving inhumane working conditions. A credible, efficient, and enforceable mechanism can only be built through an agreement with unions on the ground. This attitude of contempt and disregard for unions only demonstrates brands' deep disrespect for and insensitivity to workers,” says Ashim Roy of Indian trade union Mill Mazdoor Panchayat.

The announcement that the initiative will soon expand its operations to Pakistan is particularly concerning as it might compete with or even overshadow union initiatives to replicate the Accord model in the country.

“Pakistan’s worst ever factory fire incident happened in September 2012 when over 250 workers burned alive in a fire at the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi. Since then nothing has changed in terms of buying practices and business attitude. Initiatives such as IDH are just cosmetic exercises. Any non-consultative and non-participatory initiative would simply be unacceptable. It is time for genuine actions on the part of both government and non-government initiatives,” says Zulfiqar Shah of Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER).

“In Pakistan, social auditing has failed completely, with Ali Enterprises as the clearest evidence. Unfortunately, business as usual continues without any participation from the workers’ side and undermining national labour laws in producing countries. LABS will fail to protect workers in Pakistan if it does not follow lessons learned from Bangladesh Accord. For any meaningful change in the field of safety, it is important to allow workers to express their views freely. This cannot be ensured without genuine freedom of association and collective bargaining at workplaces,” says Khalid Mahmood of the Pakistani Labour Education Foundation.

“True worker safety, securing the lives of millions of workers in garment supply chains, can only be achieved if workers and their representatives are involved and have a meaningful say in the creation of any mechanism or scheme along with other stakeholders,” says Nasir Mansoor of the Pakistani National Trade Union Federation.

Apparel companies should genuinely learn from the advances made by the Accord and strive for safety initiatives that are enforceable and contain worker representation. This means that, in particular in Pakistan, companies should support the grassroots initiatives under development rather than join voluntary, unenforceable business-driven programmes such as LABS.

G7 Fashion Deal can only be meaningful if it aligns with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

published 28-08-2019 11:00, last modified 28-08-2019 12:36
This weekend, a coalition of 32 large apparel companies launched a G7 Fashion deal for sustainably produced textiles, pledging to protect the environment. Clean Clothes Campaign welcomes the intentions behind this pledge, but stresses that the time of non-committal promises is over and that the steps forward should be embedded in legally binding legislation and agreements as well as existing international frameworks.

For Clean Clothes Campaign it is clear that the past decades of voluntary certification, labelling, and brand level commitments have not brought genuine or lasting change to global garment supply chains.

Despite many fine promises, both the ecological and human rights footprints of the fashion industry has increased dramatically over the last decades. Therefore, the implementation of environmental and social standards in the supply chain requires a coherent set of accountable and enforceable measures. This should happen within a legal framework for companies’ human rights and environmental due diligence,” says Ben Vanpeperstraete of Clean Clothes Campaign.

The United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, one of the most comprehensive set of rules that all companies world-wide should follow, advocate a so-called smart mix of measures. Instead of being an isolated or one-off initiative, the G7 Fashion Deal should contribute to the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles by setting up a framework of transparency, monitoring, and accountability of the sustainability of fashion.

The Fashion Deal must define clear and ambitious entry conditions for companies. This would mean that companies may only have access to the Deal if they can prove that they:

- Take ambitious and appropriate measures to avoid all sector risks in accordance with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for environmental and human rights due diligence in global textile supply chains. These include measures to implement the International Labour Organisation (ILO) core labour standards, preventive measures against gender-specific violence and measures that lead to wage increases aiming to reach living wages;

- Review and modify their business models, supply chain, and purchasing policies to ensure proper human rights and environmental due diligence in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and, at a minimum, ensure that prices paid to suppliers allow payment of living wages;

- Have established safe, independent and trustworthy complaint mechanisms;

- Be a leader in transparency and accountability by:

  • Publicly disclosing factory level information about the supply chain, in line with the Transparency Pledge Coalition standard as an absolute minimum standard;

  • Publish those in a machine-readable, downloadable format;

  • Publicly disclose the audit reports of the certified production sites and/or product in to prove the progress toward the ambitions of the Deal.

The G7 Fashion deal can contribute greatly to the UN Guiding Principles if it develops its activity within the framework set by these rules and strives for an ambitious design to strengthens the transparency and accountability of the Guiding Principles.