GENEVA — Don’t stop the progress now.
Leaders from global apparel companies, supplier countries, organized labor, ethical investors and human right groups agreed at a United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights that more needs to be done beyond strict business codes of conduct and audits of supply chains to improve worker rights and workplace conditions, particularly in poor producing nations such as Cambodia and Bangladesh.
They remain divided over which changes in approach are likely to deliver greater compliance with core global labor standards and how to equitably share the cost burden in improving conditions at the production level.
“Well-known brands have strict codes of conduct, but it’s clear audits are far from enough,” said Johan Andresen, chair of the Council of Ethics for the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, with $900 billion in investments in more than 9,000 companies worldwide.
Buyers and suppliers have to collaborate to prevent labor violations, he said.
In 2014, the council began a comprehensive analysis of fund companies’ involvement in violations in the garment industry in Cambodia and Vietnam, he said, adding that their independent investigations on the ground have found serious violations.
In line with the 2011 U.N. guiding principles on business and human rights, which stipulate that companies have the responsibility to respect human rights in their supply chains, the council said it adheres to the policy that: “It is important that companies survey their sub-contractors and assess where the risk of breaches is greatest.”
In serious breaches, it recommends exclusions from the fund.
Margreet Vrieling, international verification coordinator at the Amsterdam-based Fair Wear Foundation, an independent watchdog group that works with 80 member companies representing some 120 brands to improve conditions for garment workers and assesses whether they meet agreed standards, said for 15 years, companies have had codes of conduct, but have made little progress.
Social dialogue, Vrieling told delegates, is “lacking in most garment production countries, and (is) one of the main obstacles to remediation,” stressing the importance of management-worker dialogue at the factory level.
“There are existing unions, employer associations, who have a role to play,” she said. “Change needs to happen at the factory level” and “all along” the supply chain.
Lars-Åke Bergqvist, sustainability business expert with the Swedish retail giant Hennes & Mauritz, noted that audits that measure conditions in factories at a particular moment aren’t enough and often don’t provide remediation.
Worker representatives like trade unions and employers must try to “build up mechanisms of conflict resolution…and avoid a lot of the problems we see.”
He said H&M should contribute to social dialogue in the industry, but added that even though it is the biggest buyer in Cambodia and Bangladesh, “we can’t change the industry ourselves; we need partners.”
Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, which has campaigned for better conditions for garment workers and compensation for victims of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, in which more than 1,100 workers died, said the coalitions that have been established have been important, but problems persist.
Akter charged that 61 percent of factories that are suppliers of H&M lack fire doors.
“It was unacceptable for a company with $1 billion profit shipping products across the world using (the) argument (there’s not) enough fire doors in Bangladesh,” she said. “I hope H&M puts an end to delays in renovations of fire doors in our country and in other countries where they have production.”
Bergqvist responded that H&M doesn’t own the factories and that some responsibility lies with suppliers to speed up actions.
Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, said companies effectively leverage suppliers to provide the prices they want and delivery schedules, but don’t apply the same leverage to get suppliers to improve working conditions.
Nova said with the WRC audit regime over the last 17 years, “We see again and again gaps between principles in brand codes, and reality on the ground.”
“It’s not a function of incompetence, but a question of priorities,” Nova said. “Price and delivery speed are more important, often at the cost of the rights of workers.”
Overall, the experts agreed that some advances in the last 20 years through better corporate social responsibility policies have been achieved, especially in combating child labor. But they were divided over the role of consumers in helping to improve and enforce standards.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said, “Ultimately, it has to come from consumers” and not be supply-driven. “It cannot come from brands, suppliers, trade unions. It has to come from campaigns of consumers. If buyers don’t pay more, how do we pay more?”
Nova said consumers do not set prices, brands and retailers do, adding that most consumers are willing to pay more if a product is verified to be made in good working condition and will turn away from a brand too often linked to abusive conditions.
“Fear of brand reputation has worked to change brand and retailer behavior in the last 20 years,” he said. “We did see retailers accept binding commitment after Rana Plaza, which generated three weeks on international media coverage. They had underestimated the reputation brand risk by sourcing in Bangladesh.”