Ged Kearney: Why do we stand for sweatshop labour?

The recent Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh is yet another avoidable disaster that demonstrates the inadequate conditions that workers experience on a daily basis in Bangladesh. The tragedy is not a new one. Last year a fire at a Tazreen fashion factory in Dhaka killed 122 workers and attracted international press.

After the Tazreen fire, unions and workers’ rights NGOs presented a proposal on workplace safety to multinational garment companies with factories located in Bangladesh that had first been floated in 2011. The companies, including Wal-Mart, the Gap and H&M, rejected it.

After the Rana Plaza collapse Amirul Haque Amin, President of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, said, “This negligence must stop. The deaths of these workers could have been avoided if multinational corporations, governments and factory owners took workers’ protection seriously.”

The deaths of 146 garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 was the catalyst for far-reaching changes that improved safety and working conditions in the US garment industry last century. We can only hope that the two recent disasters in Bangladesh can lead to a similar reassessment of the human cost of manufacturing in the Third World.

These tragedies illustrate the perils of modern globalisation, which is characterised by the outsourcing and offshoring of manufacturing (and increasingly services) from the developed world to the developing world. Those products then find their way through the supply chain into the shops and department stores of countries like Australia.

The opening of trade barriers has accelerated this phenomenon, but as tragedies like Rana Plaza demonstrate, free trade is often not fair, especially when it does not mandate basic rights to decent work and health and safety standards in developing nations who are suppliers of western consumer goods.

These tragedies underscore time after time the need for governments to have laws and practices in place for the protection of workers. Basic health and safety standards must be both legislated and enforced. Countries must have effective labour inspectorates that are capable of identifying breaches of the law and holding employers to account.

Under international law, the Bangladeshi Government’s obligations are clear. Yet, on repeated occasions the police forces have attacked garment workers demonstrating for better wages and conditions.

Importantly, the United Nations and the OECD have made clear that the responsibility to adhere to international human rights standards does not lie solely with governments. Companies must also take genuine responsibility for practices across their global supply chains.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises make clear that human and worker rights, including occupational health and safety standards, must be respected by business. The guidelines importantly recognise that corporate responsibility to respect workers’ rights extends beyond direct employees.

This is particularly important in the garment sector where supply chains are increasingly complex and workers are falling outside the direct and permanent employment relationship into jobs that are insecure, poorly paid and dangerous.

The guidelines outline the responsibility of businesses to conduct human rights due diligence. Such processes must identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how a corporation is addressing the human rights impacts of their operations.

A recent report by the peak union body in the United States, the AFL-CIO, has found that many corporations are falling short on due diligence. The research shows that the outsourcing of social auditing and certification schemes has led to the certification of factories without even a single site visit taking place.

As a consumer in a globalised economy, how do we know which companies are acting responsibly and which companies are not? Transparency and disclosure by corporations is essential. Without transparency it is impossible to garner whether companies have appropriate policies and procedures in place to address potential human rights impacts. Without this information it is difficult for unions to monitor the workers’ rights implications of business operations.

And as consumers, we cannot forget that our purchasing power is powerful. We can show companies that we do not support their failure to be transparent with consumers. We do not support the production of goods produced by child labour or by workers struggling in poor conditions and for less than a living wage.

As citizens we can call on our Government to make clear the expectations it has of Australian companies operating overseas because it is a flawed assumption that all companies will be behaving responsibly all of the time.

There are also lessons to be learnt from other developed countries. The US has introduced compulsory reporting requirements for businesses with operations overseas in certain countries and sectors. The European Union is considering similar disclosure requirements.

Australian unions have long advocated for Australia’s trading relationships to be underpinned by respect for workers’ rights. This is important to ensuring that trading partners are meeting internationally recognised standards on workers’ rights. Without respect for workers’ rights there is no chance that the benefits of globalisation will be distributed among working people.

What does this mean in practice? It does not mean that we are advocating for a global wage rate as some would argue.

Rather we argue that no goods should be traded under Australian trade agreements that are made by workers whose fundamental rights at work have been violated. These are rights to be represented at work, the right to bargain collectively, the right to refuse to work under situations of forced or child labour, and the right to be free from discrimination at work. Furthermore, workers in all countries should have the right to a safe and healthy workplace.

These are rights that we all have as human beings on this earth. In this country you and I have realised these most fundamental rights. Why should a garment factory worker in Bangladesh not? It’s that simple.

This article was first published on the New Matilda website.