14 May 2013

Will other retailers follow Primark’s lead on Bangladesh?

For the first time since the devastating collapse of a nine-storey factory that killed over 1,120 garment workers on 24 April, Primark is able to peek its head above the parapet.

The bargain basement British retailer was among the first to announce it’s signing up to a joint memorandum of understanding on fire and building safety in the country, along with others including – so far – Tesco, H&M, Zara, C&A, Marks & Spencer and Benetton. The new accord is being hailed by all parties as significant and a real change to business as usual on the ground in Bangladesh.

Here’s why. For the first time, clothing retailers will be required to have open and transparent inspections of factories (including fire safety training, spotting risks) and to pay for any improvements or repairs that need to be undertaken. There’s a central role for trade unions and a requirement to examine pricing policies too. Crucially, signing up is voluntary but once signed, the contract is a legally binding enforceable agreement.

As a spokesperson from Clean Clothes Campaign, which helped write the accord, put it: “I think this is a ground-breaking agreement and should deliver concrete change.”

The big question now is whether or not all the other retailers that use clothing factories in Bangladesh will sign up too. So far there’s no word from Gap or from Walmart, the parent company of Asda here in the UK. They apparently have worries about a clause around dispute resolution which will give the unions an equal seat at the table when it comes to resolving any issues and hold them — the retailers — to account if things go wrong.

But they’re wrong to hold out. As the NGO War on Want points makes clear, there are 3.5 million workers in 4,825 garment factories in Bangladesh. Together, they produce goods for export to the global market, principally Europe and North America.

The Bangladeshi garment industry generates 80 per cent of the country’s total export revenue. However, the wealth generated by this sector has led to few improvements in the lives of garment workers, 85 per cent of whom are women.

For this reason alone, and for the sake of those who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, multi-billion dollar companies like Gap and Walmart need to sign this accord by tomorrow’s midnight deadline.

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One reader comment

  1. Liza Mccarron says:

    A long overdue agreement – well done (at last) primark et al – pity it had to cost over 1000 poor Bangladeshi lives to get there and shame on Walmart and Gap – but as many US companies have a pretty bad workers rights record in their home nation I’m not suprised…

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