Apr 22, 2016
‘Need to uphold garment workers’ rights’
Apr 22, 2016
Ahead of the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy that killed over 1000 garment workers in Bangladesh, the 2016 Australian Fashion Report has underlined the pressing need to accelerate efforts to uphold the rights of workers throughout the entire apparel industry supply chain.
There are presently 14.2 million people in forced labour exploitation and 168 million child labourers scattered across the global economy, says the report. Many of this number are forced to work in the farms and factories that feed the apparel industry. For millions of others working in the industry, wages remain so low that they are unable to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
The Australian Fashion Report sheds light on what the industry and individual companies are doing to address forced labour, child labour and exploitation. Each report - since the launch of the first in 2013 - has tracked the progress within the industry. The change since 2013 has been significant.
In the latest edition, Behind the Barcode, a project of the Baptist World Aid Australia that brings out the Australian Fashion Report, 87 companies were assessed, and were awarded a grade from A to F based on the strength of their labour rights management systems to mitigate the risk of exploitation in their supply chain. This report marks a significant expansion of the work of previous reports adding 50 per cent more companies, updating the research and adopting a new and enhanced rating tool. Seventy eight per cent of the companies assessed directly engaged in the research process - up from 54 per cent in the first report.
Fairtrade companies, though still relatively niche, remain the standout when it comes to strong labour rights management. Etiko and Audrey Blue (inc. Mighty Good Undies) both received A+ grades. The next best performer was one of the world’s biggest fashion retailers, Inditex (Zara), which received an A grade. Australian brands Cotton On Group, APG & Co (Saba, Sportscraft, Willow, JAG), Country Road Group and Pacific Brands all received a commendable B+.
The past 12 months have seen some substantial improvements in reported company performance, with APG & Co, Industrie and David Jones being the most significant. APG & Co demonstrated that it had substantially traced back to the inputs stage of its supply chain (it knew who its fabric suppliers were), and that it sourced from predominantly unionised factories for its final stage of manufacturing. Industrie demonstrated that it had significant traceability back to its input suppliers, and that it had begun work to understand what percentage of its factories were currently paying a living wage. David Jones results reflect a strong uptick in investments to improve labour rights, significantly improving traceability and the quality of its auditing and supplier relationships.
These three companies are reflective of one of the most welcome trends in the industry - the improved company knowledge of suppliers. Knowing suppliers is critical to a strong labour rights management system. If companies don’t know or don’t care who their suppliers are, then they cannot ensure that workers are not being exploited. In 2013, only half of companies had complete knowledge of who their suppliers were at the final stage of production (the manufacturing or ‘cut, make and trim’ suppliers). This has since increased to 70 per cent. When the focus is on those companies that have been assessed across all three reports, the proportion rises to an impressive 94 per cent.
It is clear that the industry is also increasing its efforts to know suppliers deeper into the supply chain. In 2013, 41 per cent of companies had engaged in some effort to know their input suppliers (e.g. where their fabric is produced), this has now increased to 79 per cent.
However, there is still much to be done. Only 31 per cent of companies knew more than 75 per cent of their input suppliers, and at the next tier down - at the raw materials level - only 5 per cent of companies knew who all of their suppliers were.
Continuing to improve traceability will remain one of the most important challenges for the industry. While inputs and raw materials sit outside the purview of companies, the worst forms of worker rights abuse (including forced and child labour) will continue to remain prevalent in these parts of the supply chain.
One of the chief concerns for garment workers around the world is their wage. Minimum wages are so persistently low in most developing countries that workers remain trapped in a cycle of poverty. It is a welcome improvement then, that the amount of companies able to demonstrate that some portion of their workers were earning significantly above the minimum wage had increased to 32 per cent, up from 14 per cent a year before.
In grading companies, the Australian Fashion Report looks at four key elements of the labour rights management system: Policies, Knowing Suppliers, Auditing and Supplier Relationships, and Worker Empowerment.
Baptist World Aid Australia emphasized that it does not do site inspections of factories. Therefore, its ratings are not an assessment of actual conditions on the ground, but rather an analysis of the strength of a company’s labour rights systems. It relies on data that is publicly available, alongside evidence of systems and practices that are provided by companies to conduct our assessments.
Baptist World Aid Australia says it believes in the positive impact that the fashion industry can have. The industry generates over a trillion dollars of export revenue, predominantly for low and middle income countries. The fashion industry is playing a substantial role in reshaping nations and helping communities lift themselves out of poverty, it said.
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