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Despite the development of corporate social responsibility programs, factory monitoring systems and greater overall awareness, the apparel and textile industry still suffers from widespread worker rights abuses and dangerous working conditions throughout the supply chain.
A new report, “Free2Work, The Story Behind the Barcode,” from Not for Sale, an international antihuman trafficking organization, charges that people can be found in modern-day slavery and unsafe working conditions even in some key global apparel production hubs, and six countries are known to use child and/or forced labor at the cut-make-trim level. Citing the U.S. Labor Department’s “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, 2011” report, the countries include China and India, both top 10 global exporters, as well as Argentina, Jordan, Malaysia and Thailand.
The study, funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department, said due to decades of international exposure, child and forced labor is less prevalent in export apparel factories today than it was 20 years ago. But a lack of traceability and accountability throughout the production cycle has left workers and companies vulnerable to the worst of abuses — forced and child labor, and a system that leaves itself at risk to the extremes in unsafe conditions, as evidenced by the factory fire this weekend in Bangladesh, the latest in a string of blazes that has killed hundreds of apparel and textile workers in Asia.
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The Bangladesh fire stirred international condemnation of working conditions in the apparel industry. Tuesday was declared a day of mourning in Bangladesh and garment factories will remain closed. On Monday, thousands of garment workers staged large-scale protests on the streets of Dhaka, according to international wire reports, even as a fire broke out in another garment factory in Uttara, a suburb of Dhaka. There were no casualties, however.
Sourcing giant Li & Fung Ltd. on Monday said it is compensating the families of victims of the fire, which took place at a Tazreen Fashions factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh, Saturday night. The blaze killed more than 115 people. The International Labor Rights Forum has called the fire the deadliest factory fire in the history of the apparel industry in Bangladesh. Li & Fung had outstanding manufacturing orders with the factory when the fire took place.
Li & Fung said it is matching financial assistance from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association by pledging 100,000 Bangladeshi takas, or about $1,200, to each victim’s family. The company also said it is setting up an education fund for the victims’ children.
“Li & Fung confirms the company has placed orders for garments with Tazreen Fashions Ltd. in Bangladesh, which were being manufactured at the premises where the fire occurred,” the company said. “We are very distressed and saddened by the deaths of workers and wish to express our deepest condolences to the families of the victims.”
Li & Fung said it is in contact with the factory owner and will carry out its own investigation of what caused the fire. In September, a fire at an apparel plant in Karachi, Pakistan, killed more than 300 people, and several smaller such incidents have occurred in the region in the last couple of years, making the industry rethink its factory monitoring systems.
Düsseldorf-based C&A said it had a pending order for 220,000 sweaters from Tazreen Fashions for its Brazilian operations when the fire took place.
While the Free2Work report, subtitled “Apparel Industry Trends: From Farm to Factory,” does not specifically address factory fires, it does look at the way more than 300 clothing brands manage their supply chains to address child and forced labor. Most apparel companies covered in the study monitor the working conditions in at least some portion of their cut-make-trim factories. In contrast, the earlier phases of apparel production — including textile production and cotton farming — often remain untraced, unmonitored and out of sight. This opacity, Free2Work says, significantly contributes to the risk of abuse in these production phases. At these levels, child and/or forced labor is documented in six countries: India, China, Pakistan, North Korea, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
“Much of the apparel we buy in the United States and around the world contains cotton made by people held in modern-day slavery,” said the report. “Sixteen countries are known to use child and/or forced labor in cotton production. Of these, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey are all top 10 global producers.”
The report provides detailed information on 50 apparel companies’ CSR practices, assessing each management system in four categories: Policies, Traceability & Transparency, Monitoring & Training and Worker Rights.
“Each Free2Work indicator correlates with a piece of a system that should, if appropriately used, enable improvement in working conditions and the elimination of modern slavery,” the report said. “We hold that child and forced labor are far less likely in supply chains that are highly visible to companies and where workers have a voice to negotiate working conditions and speak out against grievances.”
Kilian Moote, Free2Work’s senior director of corporate engagement, said, “While it’s clear from the study that egregious labor abuses are occurring around the world, the apparel industry is more active than most in trying to curb them. For example, 54 percent of cut-make-and-trim operations are accredited.”