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The Rupp Report: The Power Of Public Opinion

At the end of April, the Rupp Report reported to its readers on the collapse of a building complex on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh (See " The Rupp Report: Cheap Textiles Paid For With Human Lives," TextileWorld.com, April 30, 2013). That report mentioned that this "was the worst industrial accident in the history of the country." Ultimately, more than 1,100 bodies were recovered, and approximately 2,500 people were rescued and sent to hospitals with injuries. The building in the Savar industrial area was occupied by five textile mills, a bank and several shops. Most victims were textile workers.

At the end of the report, it was stated: "Time will tell how this situation affects the global clientele, because the increased awareness of the consumers has become indisputable. And, it will be interesting to see how social media will organize to challenge purchasers of these textiles, and eventually change this unacceptable situation. Here, the last word will not yet be spoken for a long time."

Power To The People
And indeed, it wasn't the last word. After the devastating accident, the government declared an emigration ban against another textile producer. The owner of the Tazreen Fashions mill near Dhaka, Delwar Hossain, cannot leave the country and is expecting to be brought to court soon. A fire at his factory occurred at the end of November 2012, and 112 workers died eventually. Thanks to his excellent relations with the national textile lobby, he didn't face any problems until now. But the resentment of the people is rising.

At the end of April, unions, labor-rights activists and textile companies declared they would implement substantial actions by mid-May for more security in the country's textile factories. This was in response to the catastrophe at the eight-floor building collapse in the suburbs of Dhaka.

Pressure On The Companies
Three weeks after the collapse of the textile factory, 31 Western apparel and retail companies arranged an agreement for more safety in production buildings. After the disaster, pressure on international companies is now increasing to enforce safe conditions for workers. In Europe and the United States, unsafe conditions would not be allowed, although the products from Bangladesh are made for these markets. The severe working conditions are not the exception, but the rule. Although production costs often account for only a fraction of the final price, the competition in Bangladesh is under tremendous pressure. Also, child labor is repeatedly a problem. However, the problems rarely come to the surface.

Prominent labels such as Benetton, Mango and Primark produced garments in the collapsed factory tower. Up to now, the fashion chain Primark is the only enterprise that has admitted it was involved. Primark is an Irish company with very low prices, selling T-shirts for 2.50 euros. The brand is already a cult label among young people.

The Turning Point
For the international trade union federation UNI Global Union, this is a turning point. "This agreement is intended to improve protection for millions of workers," the federation declared. The rules should be expanded to other countries where people work under severe conditions earning US$38.00 a month. Producers committed themselves to increasing fire and building safety in the factories.

However, U.S. enterprises Gap and Walmart, which is the world's largest retailer, have so far refused to sign. Philip Jennings, General Secretary of UNI Global Union is certain that this "was a mistake and consumers will not forget." Walmart announced that it will conduct its own tests in the 279 factories that produce for the group in Bangladesh.

Safety Program
More than 1,000 factories in Bangladesh are now part of the safety program, said the initiators of the Clean Clothes Campaign. The agreement obligates the companies to pay for maintenance costs in their supplier companies. In addition, the agreement includes independent safety inspections and should involve employees and trade unions in decision-making. The signatories include companies such as H&M, PVH, Primark, Mango, Carrefour, Helly Hansen, G-Star, Benetton, Esprit, Abercrombie & Fitch, Inditex (Zara) and Switchers; and big German retailers such as Otto's, Tchibo, KiK, Aldi, Rewe and Lidl.

No Controls
Control of the product supply chain is literally nonexistent. Indeed, many companies have committed themselves to ethical standards, but the companies often do not know where their products are made. It is not yet clear which companies produced in the collapsed factory. Different labels of different brands that supply supermarkets in Canada and the US were found in the debris.

People who try to change the purchasing behavior of the companies by their own way of buying to achieve better working conditions in Asian factories have very limited possibilities and — up to now — no chance of succeeding. No institution dares to assign a label for 100-percent fairly produced apparel. Even the fair-trade label stands for only a part of the production process.

European Rules Requested
The Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), a European organization that independently audits the suppliers of its members to certify their compliance with ethical labor practices, is going further than other third-party certification organizations. Member companies so far are labels from the outdoor business such as Vaude, Schoeffel and Jack Wolfskin, but also the discount chain Takko. The membership does not mean that everything in the production chain is working at its best; yet, at least, it is a start. The reference to the FWF is so far the best guide when one is shopping. However, governments could achieve much more if they would oblige the companies to more transparency. An effective guideline at EU level would be much better and efficient, because it would involve a lot more companies importing textiles to Western countries.

June 4, 2013