Oxfam Australia is urging some of Australia’s biggest retailers to immediately release the locations of their factories in Bangladesh, as the death toll from last week’s collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka climbs to more than 400.
It is imperative that Big W, Cotton On, K-Mart, Target and Pacific Brands release details of supplier factories in the aftermath of the tragedy that continues to have ramifications around the world. Even Pope Francis has condemned working conditions in Bangladesh as “slave labour” and the European Union is now warning of trade sanctions.
It is not enough for companies to assure customers that the people making their clothing were working in safe conditions. These big brands are operating behind a veil of secrecy, with no way of independently verifying that people are working in safe and decent conditions.
Unfortunately, more than 17 years’ of research and experience has made it clear to Oxfam that sweatshop conditions are the norm in the global clothing industry throughout Asia, not the exception. We hear stories of mothers skipping meals in order to feed their children, as their wages are far too low, and working up to 15 hours a day. Companies have known about appalling working conditions for decades. They cannot say they do not know.
The fact that some companies conduct yearly audits and have guidelines for suppliers are good steps, but they needed to go further and release this information publicly. As company auditing remains confidential, it makes it impossible to know if safety issues are being adequately addressed.
The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, forged by Bangladeshi unions and local and international labour organisations, could prevent further tragedies, as it involved independent building inspections, worker rights training and a review of safety standards. However, no Australian brand has signed on. Companies that have are PvH – owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein – and Tchibo.
If all clothing brands operating in Bangladesh signed on to this comprehensive agreement, it would greatly improve safety for workers across the country. Consumers like you can exert enormous influence by pressuring Australian brands to lift their game. No brand is too big to listen to its customers. If enough consumers tell companies they care about the conditions under which their clothes are made, they will listen. We know this works. We’ve seen companies like Nike, adidas and Puma respond to major consumer pressure by releasing the locations of their supplier factories.
What Oxfam is doing:
Oxfam Australia has sent an open letter to leading garment companies about the steps that they can take to help ensure no repeats of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.
What you can do:
Write to companies – via their Facebook page or website – asking them to ensure decent conditions for the workers making their clothes.
What could you say?
I care about the working conditions of the people who make your products. In light of the tragic building collapse in Bangladesh, I ask that your company sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which aims to improve health and safety conditions for workers in that country.
Daisy Gardener is Oxfam Australia’s labour rights coordinator