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Why Boycotting Brands Won't Help Garment Workers

20/04/2016 16:56 | Updated 21 April 2016

Fashion Revolution Week marks the third anniversary of Rana Plaza, the deadliest tragedy in the garment industry, which claimed the lives of more than a thousand workers in Bangladesh.

As we wonder #whomademyclothes - attention turns to the millions of garment workers, surviving on poverty wages, who make the clothes we wear.

But what can we do to help these workers - 80% of whom are women?

Certainly not to only buy vintage or second hand - as two fashionistas recently proposed on a BBC radio 4 program. Garment workers desperately need to keep their jobs, so boycotting brands is not the way forward. They want to work. In many countries the garment industry is one of the few avenues to financial independence for women.

What they don't want are poverty wages, excessive working hours and unsafe factories.

According to United Nations Guiding Principles, multinational companies are responsible for the working conditions at their suppliers. Yet many fashion brands have little control or little idea of how much workers are being paid, how long they are working or how safe the factories are, and insufficient will to do anything about it.

Brands' short lead times, last minute changes to production specifications, and a general lack of consideration of how their demands impact on workers, put an impossible burden on the women making our clothes.

Why should garment workers endure poor wages and working conditions when they are contributing to the phenomenal profits of global brands? Amancio Oretga, founder of Zara, is the second richest man in the world with a personal fortune of $70billion.

Any change in the global garment industry has to be systemic and enforceable. Acting alone will not bring about the necessary changes needed to improve the lives of garment workers.

Extolling your own corporate and social responsibility credentials is worthless, unless you are working with your competitors to change the basis on which clothes are ordered and traded.

Garment factories in countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh produce for several brands. If one factory raised wages, it would be undercut by other factories and soon go out of business.

There needs to be a critical mass of brands to wake up and realise that their supply chain operations are immoral and unsustainable.

The Rana Plaza collapse on 24 April 2013 was a turning point in the garment industry, and showed that self-regulation and self-auditing by brands of their supplier factories had been a catastrophic failure.

It made possible the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety - a groundbreaking, legally-binding agreement between global unions and more than 200 multinational fashion brands to inspect and repair more than 1,600 garment factories.

It is collaborations between brands and trade unions, like the Bangladesh Accord, that have the best chance of success and instigating real change.

My organization, IndustriALL Global Union, is now working with a group of committed brands, including Top Shop, Primark and Next on a process called ACT, which has the potential to revolutionize the global garment supply chain.

The goal is to introduce wage negotiations in garment supply countries that involve trade unions, factories and brands on an industry-wide basis. Setting higher wages across the entire industry prevents individual factories and brands from negotiating lower prices based on lower wages.

To achieve this, brands must reform their purchasing practices so that factories are able to pay workers more. An industry-wide agreement also provides a means of negotiating better working conditions as well as productivity improvements.

The ACT process is already underway in Cambodia and there are plans to roll it out in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan.

Garment workers need a voice; they need to use their collective strength to show that, without them, nothing would get made. That's why brands and customers alike, must support them in their efforts to organize and fight for better pay and working conditions.

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