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Improve the system: don’t give up

06 June 2014

There is progress on factory conditions, but more is needed, says Paul Vallely

THE cynics will tell you that nothing ever changes. Don't be fooled. It is just over a year since 1129 workers were killed when the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, pricking the conscience of the world about our blind avidity for cheap clothes. In those 12 months, there have been some significant improvements. But new stumbling-blocks have emerged.

Within a month of the disaster, 33 of the world's biggest retailers, fearful that the public might boycott their goods, met to agree an accord to upgrade safety and tighten inspection standards. Bangladesh has the second-biggest garment industry in the world, and abuses there are routine. There have been 180 factory fires in the past 20 months, a seminar was told at the University of Manchester recently.

Still, the codes of conduct have brought distinct progress. The minimum wage in the industry has increased by 80 per cent. Go to a garment-worker's home in Bangladesh now and, instead of a few possessions stored in carrier bags hanging from the roof, you often find a piece of furniture for storage, and perhaps a fan, or even a fridge.

Of course, there have been problems. US brands, including Wal-Mart and Gap, have declined to sign the accord, and have set up their own much weaker alliance in parallel. And notall the codes work as well as they should. Some factories improved at first, and then declined. Worse still, an investigation by The New York Times has found evidence of factory owners' bribing or hoodwinking inspectors, intimidating workers into lying to the outsiders, or telling child labourers to stay at home on inspection day.

The answer - as with suggestions last week that the Fairtrade mark does not benefit wage labourers as much as those who own their own plot - is not to give up, but to improve the system.

In the case of Bangladesh, this means looking beyond better training and pay for inspectors. Western businesses need to change. They should design better compliance programmes, and set up ethics hotlines, so that workers can whistle-blow on poor inspections. They should train overseas owners in basic skills such as inventory management. But they must also improve their own supply-chain management systems, so that they prioritise the establishment of long-term stable relationships with suppliers in the poor world rather than shift constantly to save a penny on the unit cost.

This is not an easy task. All the pressures of modern production push in the opposite direction. Today, consumers want an ever greater choice of products at ever better value. For the companies, this means introducing new products faster, and pulling poor-selling ones from the market more quickly.

This increases pressures on the factories in places such as Bangladesh, where the goods are made. To cope with the West's increased volatility, they need an ever more flexible labour supply - and that invariably means migrant workers, working longer hours at lower wages.

So what is the solution? Next week, I'll make some suggestions, including some about what churches can do to help.

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

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