Ten years ago, the garment industry’s worst industrial accident – the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh – killed more than 1,100 workers and highlighted the travesty of conditions for millions of garment workers globally.
It spurred action to address exploitation, but for many workers little has changed.
Just in the past few months, Britain’s Tesco supermarket chain has been accused of profiting from the “effective forced labour” of workers in Thailand (making Tesco-brand jeans), while the world’s biggest clothing retailer, China’s fast-fashion brand Shein, has been exposed for rampant human rights abuses.
Such incidents are meant to have been eliminated, as big brands are supposed to leverage their power to effect change in global supply chains. Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, for example, requires companies with more than A$100 million in annual revenue to publicly report on their efforts to ensure their supply chains are free of labour exploitation.
The expectation has been that pressure from consumers and investors will be enough for retailers (who profit the most from driving down production costs) to drive change. Campaigners for better conditions say these requirements are all too often a “fig leaf”, because audits can easily be fudged.
Limited attention has been given to what suppliers can do to ensure their products aren’t associated with exploitation.
In this, Australia’s cotton industry could make a valuable contribution, as the world’s fourth-largest exporter (behind the United States, Brazil and India). Most of this cotton goes to low-wage countries in Asia to be spun, knitted or woven into cloth, and then turned into garments.
Producers don’t have anywhere near the same influence of buyers. Yet there is more they can do to protect the workers overseas who transform their product into material goods.