Fashioning labour policy

Ray CollinsRay Collins on ensuring better terms and conditions for garment workers around the world

Women perform two-thirds of the world’s work, produce 50% of the food, but earn only 10% of the income and own only 1% of the property. And following recent events in Bangladesh, we cannot ignore our responsibility to address this issue. The most recent disaster at the Rana Plaza complex in Savar, which killed more than 1100 people in April, is a stark reminder of the human cost behind cheap fashion in our high streets.

3.6 million women work in Bangladesh's garment industry, with most in similar factories to that at Rana Plaza. Retailers have now been forced to react, including British companies, by signing up to a legally binding building safety agreement backed by international trade unions, industry and the Bangladeshi government.

Under the terms of the deal, brands including H&M, Mark & Spencer, Primark, Matalan and Bonmarché have each agreed to contribute up to $500,000 (£325,000) a year towards rigorous independent factory inspections and the installation of fire safety measures.

But other governments need to act too. The disaster underlines why we need decent labour standards and it is essential that the UK takes the lead in advocating the change needed to protect the lives of workers around the world. 

With so many of the major companies that operate globally based in the UK, the Department for International Development must start taking decent labour standards seriously. In March, DfID Secretary Justine Greening gave a speech at the London Stock Exchange outlining how her department would work with the private sector to encourage economic growth in developing countries. Yet, despite being asked on numerous occasions by her Labour Shadow Ivan Lewis, she has failed to say what criteria DfID uses to determine when awarding a contract to a UK company for work in a developing country. 

Those companies receiving the UK government’s support should first demonstrate a number of activities. They should not be engaged in activities that undermine the tax revenue collection capabilities of developing countries. Nor should they be undertaking activities degrading to the natural environment in which they operate. They should however, implement decent employment practices throughout their supply chain, including acceptable levels of pay to workers in developing countries. And they must have competed in a fair and transparent tendering process. 

In addition, these companies must also demonstrate support for sustainable and inclusive growth, with an explicit focus on reducing poverty and inequality – and with a thread of accountability that runs right through their business. 

This is the least we can do for poorly paid garment workers – male and female – in Bangladesh and those other parts of the world, when their labour fills the clothing rails in our high streets.

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is Shadow Minister for International Development in the Lords

Published 27th June 2013

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