Five years ago, the world looked with horror at the images of the collapsed Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh. The disaster showed where the race to the bottom in the clothing industry is leading to, with regard to safety for employees and poor working conditions. The European shopping streets are still full of cheap clothes from stores. Favourable for clothing lovers that wants to provide their wardrobe with new items. Less favourable for the textile workers in Bangladesh. The European Commission must hold the government in Bangladesh and the fast fashion companies accountable for good working conditions. If nothing changes, the Commission must withdraw the trade benefits it gives to Bangladesh.
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladeshi government and the clothing industry promised one thing: never again. By using nice words it was promised that the safety and the rights of employees would be guaranteed in the future. The Bangladesh Safety Accord was set up, and in the factories that signed this accord improvements have been implemented. 84% of the safety objectives have been met. However, the wages are still incredibly low, there is no freedom for trade unions and wages are often not paid.
The minimum wage in Bangladesh is not a liveable wage. Employees work long hours in order to survive. People that fight for better salaries are facing suppression. Intimidation, discrimination, violence, dismissals, and workers that are put on a blacklist by employers are the rule rather than the exception. The Bangladeshi government does not refrain from repression either. Employees hardly dare to organise themselves. In fact, in areas that export to Europe, employee organisations (like trade unions) are forbidden and in other areas they often receive rough treatments. The International Labour Organization have repeatedly recognized that the government of Bangladesh has not implemented the vast majority of the commitments, and is years overdue
Despite the flagrant violations, Bangladesh receives favourable trade benefits from the EU. Almost half of its total export goes to the European Union, with clothes being the best-sold product. Therefore, we have an important trump card to enforce decent workers’ rights in Bangladesh and raise wages. Earlier, the European Commission gave the Bangladeshi government a deadline to improve the working conditions. The Bangladeshi government bluntly ignored this ‘red line’. Thereafter, from the side of the European Commission it remained deadly silent. Incomprehensible, because decent working conditions are part of international conventions. The freedom to unite, and to collective bargaining are human rights.
Does the European Commission think decent working conditions are limited to our borders? If it’s up to us; no. That’s why we propose the following: The European Commission must bare its teeth by announcing a time-line by which the Bangladeshi government must have made tangible improvements in working conditions. A special role is reserved for the purchasing European fast fashion companies. They have to abandon the culture of producing at the lowest possible cost. The profits could be distributed more fairly across the entire production chain. A few cents of the profit margin per garment makes the difference for employees. If no improvements are made, the trade profits must be resigned. The European Commission can hereby show that human rights are no lip service. Enforcing decent working conditions is simply a matter of good decency.
Agnes Jongerius, Member of the European Parliament, Dutch S&D (PvdA)
Tara Scally, Clean Clothes Campaign (Schone Kleren Campagne)