Corporate watch

Not good enough, Debenhams


- By Walton Pantland

The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh has shone a light on conditions in the textile industry, and put pressure on major retailers to take responsibility for their supply chains.

Unions and campaigners have been applying pressure for years, but most companies have ignored it or paid lip service to demands to improve conditions. The outrage over this entirely preventable tragedy has changed things: a new accord on fire and safety in Bangladesh, driven by the global unions UNI and IndustriALL, has been developed, and signed by a number of the world’s biggest fashion retailers.

This New York times article gives a good overview of the issues and negotiations that lead to the signing of the accord.

But not all retailers have signed up. A number of high profile retailers, including Gap, Walmart and Debenhams, have failed to take responsibility for their supply chains. They are afraid of the legally binding clauses in the new Accord, and seem to believe that the old formula of whitewashing conditions, denying liability and kicking the issue into the long grass will continue to work.

The TUC is running an excellent campaign to keep the pressure on these retailers. The campaign invites you to write to the companies involved and demand that the sign the Accord. We urge you to do so.

We wrote to the companies, and received this response from Debenhams:

Debenhams email

Debenhams say they agree with the intent of the Accord, and that they are “working through” the agreement, speaking to the ETI and the unions.

But they still haven’t signed it.

We need to shame them into doing so.

The ETI referred to in the email is the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of unions, NGOs and companies working to improve conditions in the textile industry. Debenhams have signed up to the ETI, which commits them to implement the Base Code. This is a Code of Conduct calling for, among other things, safe working conditions, a living wage and the right to organise.

Quite how Debenhams square their membership of the ETI with conditions in their supply chain is beyond me: until recently, unions in Bangladesh needed the factory owners’ permission to organise, and we know exactly what safety and wages are like. Hardly compliant with the Base Code.

The ETI, while an important initiative, is a process rather than a result: companies sign up and pledge to “improve”. It seems like Debenhams are using it to provide a bit of PR cover while they get on with business as usual.

We can’t let them.

Visit the TUC campaign page and write to them.

Or send them a tweet:


Signing the accord is a major step in the right direction, but it’s not enough on its own. Agreements are only as good as their enforcement, and more than anything else, Bangladeshi workers need strong unions on the ground to monitor compliance to this agreement, and use it as an organising tool to fight for better conditions.

Poor conditions in countries like Bangladesh make it much harder for factories in countries with decent conditions to compete.

The textile industry needs effective collective bargaining, both at a national level and through the global unions, to finally put a stop to the exploitative conditions characterised by the race to the bottom, and to create quality, sustainable jobs.

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