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Commentary: EU law to end deathtrap factories can't be just a box-ticking exercise

Women could see large cracks in the walls. They knew that returning to their sewing machines meant risking their lives, but factory owners were threatening to withhold their meagre salary that barely puts food on the table.

On April 24, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed within 90 seconds, killing 1,134 people and imprinting the tragedy in our collective memory.

Worse still, many global brands tried to wash their hands of the situation. Activists had to dig through the rubble to find the labels of 29 Western fashion brands sourcing from these deathtrap factories.

This was the worst ever industrial incident to hit the garment industry -- but it’s far from uncommon.

Just last month, a tragic factory flood and fire took the lives of garment workers in Morocco and Egypt.

Eight years on, the truth is that many European fashion companies are still linked to human rights abuses on a daily basis. Workers are underpaid, forced into excessive overtime, denied sick leave, in dangerous conditions, and trapped in child and forced labour. Workers are even threatened and intimidated when they claim their rights.

Such abuses are present throughout all levels of fashion supply chains. From those packaging our clothes in warehouses for final delivery to young women working in spinning mills, to entire families working on farms to harvest raw materials like cotton...

The fashion industry is built on exploitation...

COVID-19 didn’t help. Garment workers lost between $3 and $5.8 billion in wages in the first three months of the pandemic alone.

Even the safety agreement between brands and unions – signed in the aftermath of Rana Plaza – is under threat. Unless brands break their silence and commit to a renewed binding agreement, it’s on course to be replaced by yet another toothless voluntary mechanism when it expires at the end of May...

But now we have the opportunity to finally hold the industry accountable and ensure victims can access justice. Back in April of last year, Didier Reynders, European commissioner for justice, announced he would propose new human rights and environmental rules for companies.

Less than a year later, EU lawmakers gave him an undeniable mandate to move swiftly.

As civil society, we applaud this as a good first step. But for such a law to make a difference, it can’t just be a list of boxes companies must tick...

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