05.Codes of conduct
Sweatshops, characterised by exploitative wages, excessive work hours and unsafe working conditions, are widespread throughout Asia. “Unfortunately, that’s the norm,” says Oxfam’s labour rights advocacy coordinator Daisy Gardener.
But following the Bangladesh factory collapse last April, consumer concern has resulted in some steps in the right direction. There’s been a shift in the ethics of the industry over the past six to 12 months, argues Paula Rogers, an international fashion supply chain consultant. “I’ve never seen retailers want the information [about their suppliers] so much. They’d never asked for codes of conduct before,” she says.
Unfortunately, a code of conduct doesn’t necessarily guarantee better conditions for garment workers. In 2011, Spanish fashion brand Zara was found to be making clothes in a Brazilian sweatshop, despite having a code covering key labour conventions in place. One of Zara’s factories had subcontracted out the work without its knowledge, highlighting the complexities of monitoring a long supply chain.
Without an independent regulatory regimen protecting workers’ rights globally, companies have devised their own processes for workplace inspections, resulting in an $80bn market for corporate social responsibility programs.
Unfortunately, the inspections don't always lead to improvements for workers. For example, prior to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, two of the factories inside it had been audited but safety risks had not been identified.
Often audits are announced in advance and auditors may lack the expertise to do the job credibly. While independent audits can assist in identifying issues at factories, they aren’t always helpful in resolving them, as Måns Carlsson-Sweeny, an analyst at AMP Capital, has pointed out. Audit results are usually kept secret and so effective remediation may not follow.
Some brands have been working to improve the transparency of their auditing by disclosing factory locations for third-party auditors. In 2005, Nike
became the first brand to publish a list of its suppliers, and others such as Levi’s, Puma
followed. So far, Kmart is the only Australian retailer to disclose any of its suppliers
, and Target has committed
to do so.