From the TUC

Dhaka deaths: what made companies sign up for change?

16 May 2013, by in International

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.

3 Responses to Dhaka deaths: what made companies sign up for change?

  1. John
    May 17th 2013, 1:59 am

    A good article Owen & thanks for this even sadder update of victims. [I am of age age to well remember the Bhopal tragedy].

    As very much a lay reader on this subject, I would hope that the uk experience with Health, Safety, Building & Fire regulations will carry some extra weight as the basic conditions in these factories as to who the UK will deal with!

    [Where I live and voluntary work there are several Walmart stores in the state city. I have only visited them once as the overall [subjective]impression I got was that they were more interested in cost, quantity & not quality. The other overseas supermarkets are only slightly better].

    I wish the TUC Aid appeal more than well with their fundraising.

  2. Owen Tudor

    Owen Tudor
    May 17th 2013, 7:58 am

    Thanks John, I’m sure the UK experience of health and safety is part of the story although our US colleagues point to the Triangle Shirt Factory fire a hundred years ago as a seminal moment in their own health and safety story, and it is often referenced in US media reports on fires in Bangladesh textile factories.

  3. Persuade Gap & Debenhams to sign up for factory safety | STRONGER UNIONS
    May 17th 2013, 10:32 pm

    […] reported elsewhere about the 34 major companies that have already signed the global union Accord on Fire and Building […]