"If not now, when?"

Worker's rights in Bangladesh: Executive Director Phil Bloomer, on the 4th annual event in the Mary Robinson Speaker Series in New York City, 20 Nov 2013

“If you do not have the right to refuse dangerous work, what rights at work do you have?” This was just one of the questions posed by Kalpona Akter, the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity. Kalpona was speaking last Wednesday at our annual Mary Robinson Speaker Series event in New York. We created this platform in 2010 to give human rights defenders from around the world the chance to explain their struggles and inspire the rest of us. Kalpona did not disappoint. She spoke passionately of the daily struggle of ordinary people who work 208 hours a month in the factories that make clothes for almost all the big clothes brands, and get paid around $38 a month.

Kalpona also spoke of the “unconscionable” aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, six months ago, where over 1100 workers died, and many thousands were left seriously injured and unable to work. Kalpona pleaded for urgent action by the Bangladeshi Government and the big brands to invest in compensation to alleviate the suffering of families left without income.  So far only a handful of companies including Primark and Loblaw have agreed to compensation – most are holding out. 

Hearing of this suffering, and knowing that most of us in the hall were probably wearing at least one item of clothing from the Bangladesh factories, I remembered Auguries of Innocence by William Blake in the late 18th Century: "Every night and every morn, some to misery are born; every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight."  Our cheap clothes, and the "just-in-time" production system to deliver ever shorter fashion cycles  in our shops are, in part, what lies at the heart of this tragic inequality.

And yet throughout Kalpona’s address, Mary Robinson’s video message, and the broad panel of experts who followed, there was a sense of optimism that there could be substantive change to this unsustainable business model. The disasters of Tazreen (the factory fire, 12 months ago, that left over a hundred dead) and Rana Plaza were felt to have created a different energy across governments and companies; it had strengthened workers organisations; and was spurring new initiatives in both policy and practice.  Successful progress is far more likely if all major actors in the supply chain collaborate to create different conditions for workers and their families.

In the discussion of our panellists (see below), we heard of divisions too. There is contested terrain between the Accord that now has around 100 companies signed up, especially from Europe, like El Corte Inglés, H&M and Tchibo, and includes unions in the co-creation of reform, and the Alliance with 26 company signatories, like GAP and Wal-Mart mainly from USA, which does not. There were many calls for a "worker-centred approach", which would bring workers’ organisations into the discussions on wages and health and safety in the supply chains.

Listening to this debate I was reminded of the crucial importance of simplicity and a united kite-mark to build the confidence of consumers in the product and supply chain. As an analogy, Fair Trade, for all its difficulties, is understood by the vast majority of consumers in Europe to mean ‘better at delivering well-being for producers than the rest of the brands’. This is why it was adopted by the major coffee brands and supermarkets after the scale of inequality and suffering in the supply chain was persistently revealed by civil society a decade ago. This surely highlights the need for common standards across the new initiatives in Bangladesh regarding the investment in sustainable and fair supply chains. Nobody will win from a plethora a competing initiatives or kitemarks, least of all the workers at the bottom of the supply chain and the consumers trying to decipher how to make a more ethical choice for their wardrobe. It is welcome that the Accord and Alliance did agree last week to common standards for their factory inspections. 

It was Martin Luther King who said: “the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice”. In the case of the clothes supply chain in Bangladesh, it has already been long. Now is the moment to ensure it bends towards justice. There are now diverse actors engaged: from international and Bangladeshi companies, to the Bangladeshi and rich-country governments, to unions and the broader movement for Business and Human Rights. There is real potential for a major step forward to pay a living wage, and end the recurring disasters that blight some of the poorest supply chain workers on the planet. As Primo Levi wrote: “If not now, when?”

We’d like to express our sincere thanks to our panellists: Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times (panel moderator); Lauren Compere, Boston Common Asset Management; Judy Gearhart, International Labor Rights Forum; Harpreet Kaur, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre; Sarah Labowitz, NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and Chloë Poynton, BSR (Business for Social Responsibility).   And also to the Ford Foundation for hosting the event.  We will soon be posting the video of the event online.

Phil Bloomer. 26.11.13