Codes of conduct fail to address exploitation in Bangladesh’s clothing factories

Global fashion brands achieve corporate legitimacy while factory employees continue to face unsafe working conditions.

Codes of conduct implemented in Bangladesh’s readymade garment industry in 2013 have done little to improve the exploitation and dangerous working conditions its employees experience, according to research co-authored by a Cass Business School academic.

The Rana Plaza Tower collapse in 2013 led to the deaths of more than 1100 garment factory workers. In response, two separate initiatives were established: The Accord for Fire and Building Safety (Accord) and The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (Alliance).

Both initiatives made claims that they would improve worker safety and both claimed to be legally binding, although to different extents.

Researchers, Professor Bobby Banerjee of Cass Business School and Dr Fahreen Alamgir of Monash University, analysed more than 30 hours of recorded interviews with factory workers, factory owners, union leaders, labour activists, industry associates and government officials to form the basis of their study.

The researchers’ primary data was complemented with 169 secondary sources including newspaper reports, government and NGO reports, research reports, industry reports and reports compiled by the World Bank and the European Commission.

At the conclusion of their study the researchers found that neither the Alliance nor the Accord had successfully addressed the aspect of Bangladesh’s garment industry that presents the most danger to its workers – the exploitative and deplorable labour conditions found in its factories.

The researchers found that the most tangible outcome of the Accord and the Alliance has been to add a level of legitimacy to the corporate reports of the international brands that are their signatories.

Professor Banerjee questioned the ability of these codes of conduct to effect change while their signatories continue to sell branded t-shirts at minimal prices.

“After all the codes of conduct, ethical trading initiatives, accords and alliances have been signed will it still be possible for a global retailer to sell a branded T-shirt for $10, when the women who manufactured the shirt are paid $2 a day and continue to work in unsafe and oppressive conditions?” he asked.

“The answer is sadly yes. Despite all these initiatives, very little has changed in terms of working conditions in the factories. All these codes do is make big brands look good and consumers in the West feel less guilty about their purchases.

“Real change only seems likely through combined international pressure on the industry and the ability for unions and activists to meaningfully organise industry workers; if only it were that simple.”

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