Brand image won’t prevent labour abuses, but human rights will

Fundamental labour rights and protections should not be optional, applicable only to the rich but must be a central part of our labour markets, for compromises create cracks and cracks lead to catastrophe.

Caroline Robinson is policy director for Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)

As the body count from Wednesday’s garment factory collapse in Bangladesh mounts, the world’s attention is finally focused on the people who feed the consumer habit for cheap and disposable clothes.

Clear warnings that such a disaster was imminent came from previous catastrophes in similar factories in Bangladesh. Such incidents also sparked outcry and left the high street brands who profit from the exploitation of people for labour fearful for their brand image.

The challenge now is to ensure that the lives of those who died on Wednesday are not viewed similarly as collateral damage in the onward march of global capitalism.

Those who work in the industrial complex where this tragedy occurred are rightly enraged by the lack of government regulation and accountability of the factory owners to their workers. International responses have focused on the need for the Bangladeshi government to ensure international health and safety standards are upheld.

Profits before people

However, there is a bigger theme in play: one of profits, consumption and capitalism over human lives and the basic principles of humanity and fundamental human rights.

Why these workers were required to enter a building which was showing signs of severe disrepair relates to a wider question of why workers worldwide still receive poverty wages, live in squalid conditions and work dangerously long hours. The simple answer is that globalised markets depend on the ability to exploit people’s desperation for work, forcing them to accept terms and conditions that simply should not be offered.

Companies whose reputations are damaged by disasters often swiftly sever relations with the suppliers in question and hurriedly rebuild their brand image. Indeed, the UK minister for Immigration suggested at a conference on human trafficking and labour exploitation in March that businesses wary of the impact on brand image of exploitation would automatically clean up their supply chains.

If this were true then high profile global corporations, including Primark, Matalan and Mango, with whom this factory did business, all took their eye off the ball in this instance.

Unfortunately, the more plausible answer is that the conditions of work in these factories are known and supported, through purchasing agreements, by high street stores. For these companies upholding brand image does not mean a root and branch review of working conditions, pay and labour rights, instead it seems purely about saving face and ensuring that the business of cheap, disposable production is not interrupted by mass mortalities in the factories.

Preventing further tragedies

Two core responses to this problem are critical. Firstly, all governments must introduce legislation and regulations that prevent exploitation, including enforcement – inspections and penalties for abuse. Legislation must not only penalise poor practice but also facilitate empowering measures such as unionisation and collective bargaining for workers.

Secondly, a shift in global consumption patterns is required. This means moving from cheap, disposable products towards products which last, made by people paid a living wage in decent conditions as well as reusing and recycling where possible.

Workers must have access to universal human rights, protected in law and above all be valued for their contribution to global supply chains. Companies, consumers and governments should all recognise that our collective dream of a world with constant consumption comes at great human cost.

Fundamental labour rights and protections should not be optional, applicable only to the rich but must be a central part of our labour markets, for compromises create cracks and cracks lead to catastrophe.

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