- There is a growing appetite for change in the garment sector.
- To make the most of resources, initiatives must be coordinated and good practices shared.
- The approach should be both top-down and bottom-up.
- Empowerment is a prerequisite for success.
Over the past few decades, the garment industry has increasingly been outsourcing its production. Driven by the pressure from brands to cut costs, standards have frequently fallen to well below an acceptable level. The collapse in 2013 of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, where 1 138 people died and 2 000 were injured, has acted as a catalyst for change.
While a number of socially committed businesses and social entrepreneurs had already been taking steps to improve standards, this human tragedy generated a greater awareness of working conditions for people in the garment industry, and a greater commitment to change.
Representatives from four European organisations described how they were addressing health, environmental, social and gender issues in the garment sector, while seeking to improve working and living conditions for people in the context of sustainable development.
Although the presenters were coming to these issues from slightly different perspectives, the need for both a top-down and a bottom-up approach was a key theme for all. The involvement of both workers and managers was seen as essential to success, whether in the development of building safety in Bangladesh via the Bangladesh Accord, the campaign for better working conditions and victim compensation by the Clean Clothes Campaign, the water conservation work of the Swedish International Water Institute or humanitarian work by Care. If workers are not empowered or managers not engaged, then initiatives will inevitably fail to become embedded, speakers said.
Empowerment, through training or support programmes, is essential in delivering results. For example, the Bangladesh Accord gives workers the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. If this accord had been in place in 2013, then the tragedy of Rana Plaza might not have happened. But if workers do not have confidence that they will not be victimised if they refuse to work, then this ‘right’ is of no value.
The role of both local and national government officials was widely debated. In some countries, involving officials at an early stage was seen as a hindrance. In the case of Bangladesh, for example, while action plans have been drawn up with government officials to improve building regulations and health and safety, there seems to be little impetus to get these plans off the drawing board.
However, the publishing of data was a good example of how to bring pressure to bear. The creation of contractual agreements with garment brands was a method of cutting through high-level bureaucracy while working within a legal framework.
Businesses, non-governmental organisations and the public sector are taking steps that are beginning to bring results. Klaus Rudischhauser, Deputy Director General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Development and Cooperation-EuropeAid, announced a new initiative to begin at the end of June.
The Commission will bring together stakeholders from across all sectors to consult on the best way forward for the garment industry. The intention is to build a multi-stakeholder platform that will bring about the additional leverage needed across Europe. This, he said, needs to be ‘transparent, knowledge based, and coordinated’. The intention is not to create new laws, but to implement existing ones to accelerate progress.
Despite some of the terrible conditions that prevail in the garment industry, there is a strong sense of the positive, with a growing willingness in Europe to address issues of injustice, dignity and poverty in this sector.