Monday, 29 April 2013

The Real Cost of Health and Safety Failures 

Commemorations to mark International Workers Memorial Day that took place throughout Scotland over the last weekend were particularly poignant as news continued to come out of Bangladesh of the rising death toll following the collapse of a building in Dhaka housing a number of garment factories.

Workers Memorial at Glasgow Green

With confirmed deaths now standing at 370 and over 1000 unaccounted for this tragedy serves as a timely reminder that the drive for shops to deliver cheap clothes to the British public comes at a price, in this case the lives of those killed and their families who face a lifetime of pain, heartache and poverty as a result of the failure of the building owner and the garment companies occupying the premises to  deliver safe and healthy working conditions as they were obliged to do under Bangladesh's own health and safety regulations.

Only a few months ago 112 garment workers were killed in a fire in a Bangladeshi garment factory prompting trade unions and campaign groups such as Labour Behind the Label to launch the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement, a voluntary memorandum of understanding aimed at improving health and safety in the garment industry in Bangladesh.

This memorandum of understanding covers fire and building regulations in addition to health and safety and signatories to the agreement undertake to supply information on their suppliers to an independently appointed factory inspector. A task force has been set up consisting of representatives from trade unions, NGOs and retailers sourcing garments from Bangladesh to take this work forward.

The parties to the agreement undertake to ensure that any remedial action required is carried out to the necessary standards and in good time.  The agreement also outlines that support that businesses can expect to receive from the committee overseeing this improvement including helping to access funding from Government to finance remedial work, establishing health and safety committees and developing and delivery of health and safety training to managers and workers.

This agreement has been built on well established health and safety systems evident throughout the world and trade unions are right at the heart of the struggle to deliver a safer garment industry in Bangladesh.

While some retailers see the benefit of working with trade unions and NGOs to achieve this aim it is concerning that high street names such as Primark and Gap are refusing to sign up.  Primark want a system where they are accountable to no one, that is far from independent and places no obligation on their company or their clients to remedy any defects. GAP had previously been a signatory to the ageement but walked away at the end of 2012 to implement its own programme described at the time by Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium as "factory monitoring controlled entirely by the brand, with no transparency, no role for workers or their trade unions, no commitment to pay prices to suppliers that make it possible to operate responsibly, in fact, no binding commitments of any kind.”

Trade unions and responsible retailers are seeing their efforts to deliver real change in working conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry and protect the lives of workers hampered by companies who act like Gap and Primark (both are full members of the Ethical Trading Initiative by the way).

The slogan for International Workers Memorial Day is "Remember the Dead; Fight for the Living", that fight could be so much easier if high street clothing retailers lived by their claims to be ethical organisations and recognise that independent inspections where factory owners are required to address failures and supported to do so is the only way to change the health and safety culture in the Bangladeshi garment industry.

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