What follow-up by the EU to the Rana Plaza tragedy?

(Joint article by AchACT and the Fair Trade Advocacy Office)

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 24 April 2013, which ended up in a tragedy with more than 1100 dead and 2500 injured workers, highlighted again that garment workers face extremely bad working conditions, including unsafe working places and poverty wages. Their human and workers’ rights are systematically violated with contempt by their employers and client companies, most of them from Europe or North America.

All over Asia, garment workers are mobilising themselves. They demand the respect of their rights. They want to be paid a living wage.

Following Rana Plaza disaster, the European Parliament[1] and the European Commission[2] have recognised the need to improve working conditions and workers’ rights respect in the garment sector. This is a first step that needs to be followed by concrete actions and legislation.

Living wage is a Human Right

The garment industry provides millions of job in Asia. If the industry contributes to increase global wealth, the wages paid don’t allow millions of workers to live above the poverty line. All garment workers in Asia need a substantial wage increase to be able to provide for themselves and their families basic needs – including housing, food, education and healthcare. A living wage is the cornerstone of decent work and decent life. It is a right recognised by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art 23)[3]. However often when workers struggle to improve their wage and conditions in one country, companies and clients relocate to another country where wages and conditions are lower.

That’s why Asian trade unions and labour rights organisations from across Asia created the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA). The AFWA represents the demands of the workers themselves and call for a living wage to be paid to all garment workers across Asia.

EU and Member States have duty to ensure a living wage to garment workers

As established by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), the European Union (EU) and its Member States have the duty to ensure that businesses operating within their territory/jurisdiction respect human rights. It includes to effectively ensuring that companies’ practices don’t have negative impact on Human Rights, including the right for workers in their supply chain to be paid a living wage.

To hold European and international companies accountable

This duty cannot be avoided by transferring authority to enterprises by simply “encouraging companies to promote workers’ rights in line with Corporate Social Responsibility guidelines”, as announced by EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht[4].

The EU and Member States should implement their duty to protect the right of garment workers making clothes for European companies and public bodies and ensure they are paid a living wage, through effective policies, legislation, regulations and socially responsible procurement. This should be done by clarifying the concept of human rights due diligence and identifying appropriate ways of embedding supply chain responsibility in its legislation and policies.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has identified some appropriate ways for the EU to assume its duty. The EU and Member States should firstly make compulsory the disclosure of information on place of production as well as employment and wage conditions in which clothes sold by European companies are made. They should include the respect of a living wage and workers’ rights in the EU trade policy and trade agreement with all garment production countries. They should also include the respect of workers and Human rights in the call for tenders of promotional and work wear and include credible and efficient means of verification. For more information: www.cleanclothes.org/livingwage or www.achact.be/salairevital

Need for a comprehensive supply chain approach

In the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Fair Trade movement has also drawn the attention of the European Union Institutions to the need to adopt a comprehensive approach across the garments supply chain, with the goal to ensure fair trading conditions across the supply chain. This should include measures to empower, for example, cotton farmers that supply garment factories. It should also include putting in place a robust system to phase out Unfair Trading Practices across the supply chain and ensuring each step in the chain (in particular the weakest actors) get a fair share of the price paid by the final consumer.

[3]“Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself (sic) and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”