Dhaka deaths: what made companies sign up for change?
Our development arm, TUC Aid, has today launched an appeal for funds to help the families of victims of last month’s disastrous factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh (please give generously). Over at Stronger Unions, Rosa Crawford has set out why, having pressurisised the companies, we’re now moving on to humanitarian relief.
But it’s worth reflecting on why 34 of the world’s biggest retail and textile companies have finally agreed to sign the global union Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. And why so many of the companies signing the deal are British, rather than from the USA or continental Europe. In part at least, it’s because of years of engagement with corporates on supply chain strategies, eg through the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).
Of course, one grisly prompt for action has been the deaths of at least 1100 ready-made garment workers (that’s the point at which the authorities stopped counting – in fact, it’s likely that over 2,000 died). But even that horrific statistic hasn’t been enough yet to persuade Wal-mart or the Gap to sign up. Piles of corpses alone don’t seem to be enough for some companies. We should look at why there have been more sign-ups in the UK than in the two other main textile markets – the US and the Eurozone – although there are significant signers there like Inditex (Zara) and H&M, and more may follow eventually.
Of course, the USA is home to some particularly hard-nosed (is inhuman too strong a word?) businesses. Wal-mart claim that they have their own solution which would work much better than the union Accord, although it’s clear from the cemeteries around Dhaka that their voluntary approach hasn’t been as successful so far as they suggest.
US corporate social responsibility approaches have often been voluntary and corporate-led, which has led to almost complete failure to change matters for the better, as the AFLCIO’s recent report set out in forensic detail. But that doesn’t explain why there has been so little movement to date in the far less free-market Eurozone countries. And the UK is itself not without its proponents of milksop corporate social responsibility approaches.
What the UK does have, though, is a long track-record of union engagement with corporate supply chains, and engagement in the tripartite (corporates, NGOs and unions, including global union federations and the ITUC) Ethical Trading Initiative. The ETI and other engagement experiences (eg in the Playfair2012 campaign) have provided unions with contacts, greater understanding of how companies operate and make decisions, and leverage with the UK end of the global supply chains which we are seeking to influence. The work involved is often tortuous and frustrating, but it does seem to have paid off in the case of the Bangladesh Accord.
The past week has seen TUC and union officers (from General Secretaries down) hitting the phones to corporate contacts. We’ve applied what we call ‘the strength of our arguments as well as the argument of our strength’, as phone calls and letters have been backed up by mass e-actions and the potential mobilisation of media and consumer pressure. The ETI – who have provided an arena for months for discussion on these issues between unions and corporates – urged their members to sign the Accord, and 13 of the 34 who have signed so far are ETI members (9 are UK-based). It’s been intriguing to watch flat denials that the Accord would be signed by anyone in the industry turn into plaintive requests for more time and then the final email that says “we’ve signed”. Sometimes that process has taken days. In a few cases it’s been just hours!
So, the lesson of this week is that corporate engagement strategies take a long time to have an immediate effect, that global multinationals can be persuaded to the bargaining table, and that union global solidarity works.