Ethical Manufacturing In Bangladesh: How To Stop A Tragedy From Happening Again

1227 people died in Bangladesh this April, while making clothes you buy from major Australian chains. Boycotting is not the answer -- but public pressure is.

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When 1227 workers died in a factory collapse in Bangladesh in April, it pushed the matter of ethical manufacturing into the public consciousness like only a tragedy of this kind can.

Intuitively, we probably already knew that the workers who manufacture the cheap goods we buy from Just Jeans, Jay Jay’s, Coles, Big W, Cotton On, Target and Kmart were not paid well. But it took the Rana Plaza tragedy — and the Four Corners report on June 25 — for consumers to fully cross-examine our own conscience.

The site of people trapped in the rubble, of overburdened hospitals treating shell-shocked, limbless workers, of relatives wandering the streets searching for loved ones, and of the pile of rubble where the ten-story building once stood, forced us to confront the consequences of our consumerism.

A Boycott Is Not The Answer

It would be tempting for us to piously declare a boycott of Australian brands that manufacture or source their products from Bangladesh. But this approach doesn’t work.

Firstly, it only snips at the margins. Any boycott would, at best, remove a decimal point from the profits of these companies — who of us shops at Rivers anyway? People would continue to purchase ugly jeans, and manufacturing would continue in unsafe factories.

Secondly, Bangladeshi workers aren’t asking to be unemployed; they want and need a healthy manufacturing industry. All they want is to be paid and treated fairly. Oh, and not to die in a building collapse or factory fire.

Public Pressure Is A Better Idea

The truth is, the best way to force companies to commit themselves to doing the right thing is through public pressure. Kmart — implicated in the devastating Four Corners story — responded straight away, signing the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and committing to other measures. They want us to associate Kmart with bargains and happy, bargain hunting mums, not the twisted wreckage of buildings and corpses.

The Accord commits companies to ensuring workers down the supply chain don’t die. The rush to manufacture cheap clothes in Bangladesh has seen factories hastily built, tacked on to other buildings, or converted: since 2005, more than 1800 people have died in fires and building collapses. According to a recent audit, only one in ten Bangladeshi garment plants are structurally sound.

Importantly, The Accord is transparent, binding, and independently monitored and vetted.

Who Has Signed The Accord?

In the wake of the tragedy, more than 50 companies world wide have signed on, including Kmart, Cotton On and Forever New.

Other companies, such as the Just Group (which incorporates Just Jeans, Dotti, Jay Jay’s, Peter Alexander, Portmans and Smiggle), The Gap, Myer and David Jones, have not.

Of course, these companies still care about Bangladeshi workers — or so they say. They often point to their own internal codes and policies and other ‘strict’ measures, to justify their decision not to sign.

But it’s not good enough.

For a start, these company’s internal policies are not transparent or binding. We simply don’t know how rigorous their standards are. Worse, they’re not vetted or policed by an external agency.

With others, I started a Facebook campaign — Ethical Work Australia — dedicated to forcing Aussie companies to sign The Accord. Within about a week, we’ve gone from zero to nearly two thousand followers, asking companies why they haven’t signed the Accord.

Some retailers, like Kmart, were keen to engage fully with us. Just Jeans, however, are playing hardball. Their PR department copy and pasted the same response over and over to our Facebook inquiries; vague corporate spin about internal ethical codes.

Next, their lawyers started reporting our images to Facebook and Twitter for Copyright Violation.

Then, as the campaign stepped up, they temporarily removed Just Jeans’ Facebook page, to try and lower the heat.

They still have not explained why they won’t sign the accord, continually pointing to their own internal measures, but never showing them to us.

What Can We Do?

We’re all consumers in a wealthy country. This, coupled with the reality of globalisation, means that somehow, somewhere, we’re fucking someone over.

Boycotting simply accepts this status quo. Placing sustained public pressure on companies, however, can lead to actual change.

Companies carefully cultivate their public image and do not want to risk it by being implicated in the sort of unethical practice that lead to tragedies like Rana Plaza.

It’s up to us to prove to them that consumers give a shit, and to shine the public spotlight on companies who are not doing the right thing.

It’s up to us to ensure that Rana Plaza never happens again.

Keelia Fitzpatrick is the co-creator and moderator of Ethical Work Australia. You can find out more about their campaign by heading to Ethical Work Australia.

Feature image via Associated Press.