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Try empowering the factory workers

13 June 2014

Paul Vallely considers action on various fronts to help improve conditions

IN THE business world, they call it "Just in Time" delivery. Why waste money on warehousing products when, with fine-tuned controls, you can make the exact number of products you need - and have them delivered "just in time" and "just in the quantity" that your customers require?

In business jargon, it is termed a "lean" system. You make only what you can sell. You don't waste money on unnecessary warehouse space. And you watch your inventory like a hawk, so that you order more only when it is needed and, when things stop selling, you swiftly stop manufacture to avoid piles of unwanted goods.

It is all very efficient. The trouble is that all the risk and stress is transmitted down the inventory chain to those who make the goods in places such as the Bangladesh garment industry.

Last week, I wrote about how codes of conduct have only limited success in tackling bad conditions in such factories. Just in Time manufacturing explains why. The problem is deeply woven into the supply chains of big business here in the rich world.

This rapid scaling-up and -down of production requires great flexibility by poor workers in the developing world. If their factory can produce 20,000 T-shirts a day, and a buyer demands 22,000, the only way to fulfil the order is by enforced overtime.

The answer is better educated and more responsible ordering by Western multinationals to manage lead times and batch size, in a way that considers the pressures on the workers at the bottom - and makes sure that raw materials and components from sub-contractors are ethically sourced.

Some are trying. The clothing chain Next now has 40 staff dedicated to corporate social responsibility, a seminar at Manchester University heard recently. "But the complexity of the issue is such that no single actor can solve it," the American academic Professor Richard Locke, author of The Promise and Limits of Private Power: Promoting labor standards in a global economy (CUP, 2013) said there. "It's not something one company can do effectively alone." It requires industry-wide or country-wide action by the companies who buy, the factory owners, and by government regulators and consumers.

Individuals can cast an economic vote by where they shop. But it is organisations who buy in bulk - such as churches and charities, universities and unions, and big rock bands - who can exert the biggest consumer pressure.

We should press clothing stores to exercise greater care inside their supply chains. But we should also ask those companies to press foreign governments to impose, and police, greater safety regulations on factory owners. Aid money could go to strengthening such work. And stores should press owners to allow more effective unions inside their factories.

Unions in Bangladesh are currently often corruptly linked to political parties. And they are dominated by men, even though 80 per cent of garment workers are women. Codes of conduct are unreliable because the inspectors who enforce them are occasional visitors. The workers are there every day. Empowering them is the surest step towards serious improvement. Otherwise, our bargains will continue to come at someone else's expense.

Paul Vallely is a Senior Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester.



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