The International Labor Rights Forum’s new paper, “Future of Fashion: Worker-Led Strategies for Corporate Accountability in the Global Apparel Industry,” published today coinciding with the OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector, calls attention to the failures of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and multistakeholder initiatives to address and remedy the persistent exploitation of millions of apparel industry workers.
On the morning of April 24, 2013, an eight-story Bangladeshi factory complex called Rana Plaza collapsed, killing at least 1,134 apparel workers and leaving 2,500 others injured. Just a day earlier, workers reported seeing large cracks in the building’s support walls, but were ordered back to work the next morning by managers desperate to finish orders for several notable North American and European clothing brands.
Unfortunately, the Rana Plaza disaster is not an anomaly in the global apparel industry. In the year prior, two factory fires – one in Pakistan’s Ali Enterprises factory and another in Bangladesh’s Tazreen Fashions factory – killed more than 350 apparel workers and left many others permanently disabled. Incredibly, all three of these factory buildings had recently passed inspections by corporate-funded auditors who failed to detect or address the building and safety hazards that ultimately cost workers their lives.
The global apparel industry is characterized by complex global supply chains operated by large multinational brands and retailers, like Gap and Walmart, in which production is outsourced to hundreds of factories in developing nations to take advantage of low wages and weak labor law enforcement. This model of outsourced, globalized production has enabled multinational brands and retailers to not only increase profits by lowering labor costs, but also to insulate themselves from legal liability for working conditions in the factories making their products.
Responding to NGO campaigns, trade union pressure, and media exposés of sweatshop abuses in the 1990s, multinationals adopted private, voluntary codes of conduct that require their suppliers to comply with minimum labor standards. Monitoring of compliance with these codes is largely left to third-party social auditing firms that conduct short, annual visits to the factories to assess working conditions. Critics have pointed out the shortcomings of this model, including extreme time pressures on auditors leading to superficial “check-the-box” assessments, the absence of meaningful consultations with workers or trade unions during the audit process, a lack of transparency with regard to the audit results, and a failure to correct violations, even when serious problems are detected. Notably, most CSR models fail to address a fundamental root cause of labor violations and poor working conditions: the sourcing and purchasing practices of brands’ and retailers’ own business model, and in particular the price squeeze that they impose on their suppliers.
As a result, corporate-led social responsibility initiatives have been largely ineffective in improving conditions for workers and have particularly failed to address the most pervasive problems in the industry: low wages and the violation of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights. Indeed, corporate-led models based on social auditing have served primarily to protect corporate interests and image, rather than provide a counterbalance to the unequal power relations that are at the root of poor working conditions and labor violations in garment factories across the world.
“With the failure of the traditional, corporate-led initiatives to address labor violations, new models have emerged to hold brands and retailers accountable for working conditions in their supply chains,” said Elena Arengo, author of the paper. “Enforceable brand agreements, or worker-driven social responsibility initiatives, differ significantly from corporate-led models because they seek to address the features of the apparel supply chain that are at the root of poor working conditions and labor rights violations: namely, the absence of binding and enforceable commitments, lack of transparency, sidelining of workers and their elected trade union representatives, and how the brands’ purchasing practices contribute to labor rights violations.”
“Future of Fashion” explores the successes and challenges of three examples – in Indonesia, Honduras, and Bangladesh – of enforceable brand agreements in the global apparel industry, examining the context in which each was developed and how they address the deficiencies in traditional CSR approaches. It then outlines a four-part analytic framework, or essential elements, for identifying what a worker-centered, worker-driven model for advancing workers’ rights in the apparel supply chain should include. Finally, it lays out a road map for transforming the global apparel industry through greater uptake of worker-led initiatives and other actions necessary to strengthen worker rights in the global apparel industry.