This month will mark the fourth anniversary of the worst ever accident in the clothing industry. In April 2013 the eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed into a pile of rubble killing 1,100 workers and injuring 2,500 more.
The disaster drew attention to the working conditions in the clothing and textile sector and the need to strengthen the control and supervision of the supply chains of European companies. Immediately after the tragedy a series of initiatives were launched: a draft French law on mandatory due diligence; an UK anti-slavery bill; a Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and a German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles. The actual situation of the workers in these types of industrial-scale garment factories however has yet to show any sign of significant improvement. Some companies have still not paid into the compensation fund and there is still no guarantee for independent trade unions to act without government interference. The tragedy has also shone a light on our own buying habits that fuel the demand for ever lower prices and shorter delivery times.
More than 70% of EU and 58.4% of world imports of textiles and clothing come from Asia. Most buyers are global grands looking for the low prices and tight production timescales demanded by a fast changing, design-led industry.
After the Ranu Plaza factory collapse the European Commission promised to bring forward an EU-wide initiative to replace or reinforce the national or voluntary measures for workers’ safety and conditions that were in place. Four years later and nothing concrete has materialised. The European Parliament’s Development Committee has therefore brought forward a report calling on the Commission to make good with its promise. The Report, which will be voted on by the entire Parliament later this month, is calling on the Commission to bring forward a mandatory set of rules ensuring that all players in the textile and clothing industry supply chain respect the labour and human rights of their workers. It also proposes that the European Union lead by example by ensuring EU companies, if outsourcing production to countries outside the EU, be made responsible for checking that all of their supply chain respects approved guidelines and international standards for human rights.
As a member of the Parliament’s International Trade Committee I am of the conviction that trade policy must not be an end in itself but be used as a tool to achieve value-based goals. Trade rules should not allow the pursuit of cheaper and cheaper products to encourage a race to the bottom of working conditions, but be used constructively as a means of globally improving human rights and labour standards.
The 24th of April, which marks the four-year anniversary of the tragedy serves as a reminder that our supply and productions chains must be made more sustainable. Workers who produce our clothes have the right to be treated with dignity and respect and consumers deserve to know that they are not contributing to human exploitation in poorer parts of the world.