When working people worldwide don’t get justice
What should happen when a company abuses its workers? When, for example, people are injured as a result of working in unsafe conditions, or victimised because they speak up for others? In this country, thanks to the trade union movement, if workers are harmed they are able to sue the company for negligence, and be compensated; and companies can be prosecuted for illegal practices. But the fact is that in many countries around the world, this just doesn’t happen. Where legal systems are weak, people are being exploited and companies are getting away with it.
Through our Justice campaign, fair trade organisation Traidcraft is drawing attention to the fact that some UK companies are getting away with things in developing countries which just wouldn’t be tolerated here. They need to be held to account and the people harmed need to be able to get justice.
Traidcraft believes passionately that trade has the potential to be a route out of poverty. As a company we aim to do business in a way which respects the rights of those with whom we trade – including the workers, craftspeople and farmers whose labour creates the products we sell. And our charity Traidcraft Exchange runs projects in developing countries to enable people living in poverty to make the most of trade, while at the same time campaigning to change the way global trade is run.
As Western companies have grown and internationalised over the past couple of decades we have seen more and more evidence of the impact they can have on working people around the globe. But there is a gap in accountability – while profits flow, accountability does not.
Foreign investment has undoubtedly brought jobs and income to people who would otherwise have been without. In some countries like Bangladesh, it has given young women a measure of independence that they would never have achieved otherwise.
But – and it is a big but – the relentless drive for profits has exacted a high price.
On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in the suburbs of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. Well over a thousand people were killed, many of them young women who worked in the many garment factories housed in the building. Cracks had been spotted in the concrete pillars supporting the building the previous day, but on the day of the collapse workers were told they had to come in. Managers had urgent international orders to fulfil.
Yet tragically, Rana Plaza was not a one-off. Hundreds more people have been killed or injured in clothing factories across Bangladesh in recent years. There have been further deaths since the collapse hit the global headlines. And there have been deaths in other countries.
The international outcry following the collapse has led to welcome initiatives to improve the safety of Bangladeshi factories, and the establishment of the Rana Plaza compensation fund.
But money for the compensation fund has had to be extracted dollar by dollar on a voluntary basis from the international brands that sourced from Rana Plaza. The majority of the victims have now received some payments from the international compensation fund. But whilst the owner of the Rana Plaza building has been prosecuted, it is unclear if there has been any improvement in purchasing practices of UK brands.
Traidcraft has been highlighting other examples where UK companies have abused or exploited workers and local communities in Africa and Asia, and got away with it. We believe that what is needed, alongside support for independent trade unions, is access to a strong system of justice for the victims of such abuses. This would provide a mechanism to hold companies to account.
We’re calling on the next UK government to take action:
- Make it possible to bring criminal prosecutions in the UK against British companies that abuse human rights in other countries
- Remove the barriers which stop people from poor communities bringing civil cases in the UK courts
- Ensure that companies can also be held to account effectively outside the court system.
The growth of our ever globalising economy has an impact on us all. Our challenge is to make sure that everyone who is affected is able to get justice.