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Garment Industry (Working Conditions)

Volume 579: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate matters related to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, the anniversary of which was a few days ago. I am grateful to be joined by colleagues who have a long-standing interest in Bangladesh and who have spoken a great deal about the Rana Plaza disaster and what it means for the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. Our time is limited, so I am grateful for their support. I know they will also want to make relatively short contributions in the limited time available.

I was privileged to visit Bangladesh last September with fellow members of the all-party group on Bangladesh. We planned the visit specifically to feed into our subsequent report, “After Rana Plaza,” which focused on the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. We made recommendations on what we think is needed to get the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh into the right place so that we can ensure that we do not see another Rana Plaza.

The disaster at Rana Plaza claimed some 1,100 lives, with 2,500 people injured, and it came only a few months after the Tazreen Fashions fire in Dhaka, which killed 112 workers. There is a pattern of industrial incidents that have claimed lives in one of the world’s poorest countries, and it is a stark reminder to the rest of the world that our cheap, fast fashion has a human cost that is often hidden. Those two disasters in Bangladesh have particularly helped to bring home the human cost to consumers in Britain, Europe and elsewhere in a way that had not necessarily happened previously.

I will address the recommendations made in the all-party group’s report, but I will first talk about our visit to Bangladesh. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) is here, because we went out to Bangladesh together, and she was with me when I visited one factory in particular. The Department for International Development, which was working with the all-party group during our visit, encouraged us to go to the factory. The incongruous image that comes to mind when I think of that time is of seven Bangladeshi women in shalwar kameez sewing zips on to bright pink skinny jeans that were destined for sale in Russia.

My hon. Friend and I were in the factory for our work on the all-party group’s report. We had been sent there by DFID because it was one of the better factories and had much better standards on health and safety, fire risk and work force engagement than many other factories in Dhaka. DFID was rightly keen for us to see what a good factory in Dhaka’s ready-made garment industry looks like. When I went into the factory, even though it was one of the better factories—I took that point on board—the first thing that hit home was the unbearable heat. The factory was not hot just because of the lovely weather in Bangladesh, because I am not a wimp when it comes to general heat and nice weather. Going into that factory, the first thing I felt was a blast of heat that was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When I stood near those women who were sewing zips on to the pink skinny jeans, it was all I could do to maintain for 10 minutes a reasonable conversation in broken Urdu that the women could just about understand before I thought, “I have to wrap this up and get over to the other side of the factory, because I cannot physically stand here for very much longer.”

I also remember clearly that the women were supposed to be wearing face masks because there was a lot of cloth fibre and dust in the air, which is damaging for people to breathe in every day at work, but because it was so hot they had to take off their masks. Even in a good factory that was doing its bit to meet some minimum standards, particularly after the Rana Plaza disaster, there were still issues that I, as a British woman, felt to be serious as I was standing in the factory.

On the side of the building, again in relation to health and safety standards, there was what we were told was decent fire escape provision. There was a door at the side of the building that led out to a stairwell that went down into the outside courtyard. Again, unlike what sometimes happens in other factories, access was clear and there were no boxes of garments in front of the door. The access was not blocked, unlike pictures we had seen of other, less good factories. When I saw that stairwell, which was the fire exit for hundreds of workers in the factory, I thought to myself, “God help me if I ever find myself working in a factory like this and having to run out into that stairwell, which feels pretty rickety to me.” That might be because of the British experience and the good safety standards that we expect for ourselves, but it was a stark reminder that even what passes for good standards, and what outside organisations such as DFID and others say are good standards for Bangladeshi workers, are things that I do not think many British workers would ever accept for themselves—I certainly would not accept them.

Before the hon. Lady intervenes, I clarify that interventions are acceptable with the agreement of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) but speeches are not acceptable unless the hon. Lady and the Minister have agreed. The Chairman should also be informed.

Thank you, Mr Dobbin. I will make an intervention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) mentioned our visit to Bangladesh, and it is clear from that visit that, across the board in the garment industry, people face a threat to their life every day in such places. That was highlighted by the most appalling tragedy last year in the Rana Plaza accident.

My question is both to my hon. Friend and to the Minister. I seek progress and pressure from our Government to ensure that the issues with labour standards and building regulations that we found in our report are addressed quickly so that we see no further tragedies. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should put more pressure on companies that have not paid compensation? Only $15 million of the $40 million has been paid. Will the Minister support the “No more fashion victims” campaign led by Labour Behind the Label and Katharine Hamnett, which seeks to apply such pressure?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which highlighted a number of important issues. I will come to building standards a little later.

As I was saying, I did not feel that even what I accepted was a good factory represented a safe environment in which I would happily rock up for work, do my shift and go home without thinking that I had taken my life in my hands. That is a stark reminder, if one were needed, that even with minimum standards in place—there has been a lot of good work on getting standards in place for the sector in Bangladesh post-Rana Plaza—there is a long way to go, first to meet those standards in the first place and then to get the kind of working conditions in that part of the world that workers in many other parts of the world, particularly in this country, enjoy.

I apologise to all Members; I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate. Briefly, does my hon. Friend agree that the standards issues she describes make it all the more important that we support and back up the work of the International Labour Organisation, which does this work around the world on all our behalves?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The ILO plays a very important role and I am pleased that other organisations work closely with it, including DFID. I hope that that co-operation continues.

I spoke on this issue on 25 April, two days after the disaster, in the Council of Europe; what happened was in breach of article 4 of the European convention on human rights. On standards, my hon. Friend visited a factory where she was shown that everything was fabulous, but that was because she was visiting. The reality is that in October 2013, 112 women died at the Tazreen factory in Dhaka because they were locked in the factory when it caught fire. On 11 September 2012, 289 workers died at the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi because they were locked in the factory when it caught fire. How much confidence can we have that we are not just being shown the best on the day? All the reports say that such factories do not represent the standards when interested parties, such as my hon. Friends, are not there observing.

That is an important point. When we visited that factory in Dhaka, I had the benefit of having my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow with me. She was able to engage with the workers in Bengali and Sylheti. She had a conversation with them that probed whether what we were seeing was for the benefit of visitors, rather than what happens on a day-to-day basis. I left confident that what we had seen was a true picture. DFID put in place arrangements to work with grass-roots organisations to ensure that those standards are not just what someone sees when they visit on any given day, but what happens every day for those workers.

I am afraid that I will not, because I have so little time left.

Post-Rana Plaza, there has been a lot of action to try to get better safety standards in Bangladesh. A number of companies have signed up to the accord on fire and building safety there. It covers just less than 2,000 factories, which still leaves many thousands of factories not within the scope of the accord. That is a concern, although the fact that some 1,800 or so factories are covered by the accord is a good thing.

When we were in the country with the all-party group, we had a number of conversations with Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, the Bangladesh university of engineering and technology and other stakeholders in Bangladesh on regulations and building codes and their enforcement. Their point was not that the building regulations do not exist, because there is a strong and relatively robust system of regulations and codes; their point was more on the level of enforcement and capacity—having enough trained surveyors, architects and engineers to implement the regulations.

I am the daughter of a civil engineer. My dad is an expert in water and waste management systems, so I have grown up looking at maps, regulations and things like that. I was struck that the experiences of those experts was not that different from those of my dad as a civil engineer in Britain. They had similar relationships with colleagues and brought similar professionalism to bear. The problem is that there are not enough of them in Bangladesh and they are not organised into professional bodies, such as those we are privileged to have in this country with—for example, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. That is the missing link, almost, in getting Bangladesh to a place where the regulations are properly implemented and enforced when buildings are being put up.

I am pleased that DFID has decided to focus its energies on fire and safety regulations, capacity and so on. That is an important step. I am a big believer that our activities through DFID in other parts of the world should not be seen as just giving money. We should help countries to build up the infrastructure and systems that they need to deal with these issues themselves.

One thing that remains a concern is that, although many organisations are carrying out inspections and reports into building safety in Bangladesh are being prepared, I am not clear or confident that the information captured will go quickly to a place where it can be implemented. For example, Tesco wrote to me in advance of this debate to say that it had ceased to work with one of its suppliers in Bangladesh because it does not believe that the building that the supplier works out of is safe enough. It is worried about that, but once it has ceased to work with that factory I am not clear what will happen to ensure that the factory ceases to operate or that it takes remedial action to ensure that it is a safe working environment.

There are so many assessments of building safety covering such a wide geographic area; I remain worried that the Bangladeshi Government will not end up with the data they need to take remedial action in situations where remedial action has not been enforced because the big clothing companies have ceased their relationship and walked away.

Issues remain on workers’ rights and the organisation of the labour force in Bangladesh. Trade unions in this country have been active in trying to support Bangladeshi workers to be in a position where they can organise. There is a lot of discussion on labour law amendments in Bangladesh—whether they go far enough and whether workers will soon be able to organise and to negotiate with company owners on wages and their safety at work.

Regardless of the politics of the trade union movement in this House, we are privileged to have such things in this country. I would very much like to see Bangladeshi workers and poorer workers across the world in a similarly strong position when it comes to negotiating rights at work. I would be very grateful if the Minister said a little more about what DFID is doing to support labour law and rights in Bangladesh. There has been a lot of discussion about whether to take the United States route, which is to deny trade privileges, or whether to try to work with the Bangladeshi Government in a slightly different way, which is what the UK and the European Union have decided to do.

There remains, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) said, a big issue on the Rana Plaza compensation fund, which does not have half the money that it aimed to have. It was said to need £24 million, but only £9 million has been raised. I find that disgraceful and shocking. For the big companies that are involved in this industry, which is worth billions and billions of dollars, £24 million is small change. It is a tiny sum.

I remain shocked and deeply upset that that fund has still not got the money that it needs. I pay tribute to the companies that have paid into it. Primark, which has a base in my constituency, wrote to me recently to inform that it has paid in and taken the action that it feels that it can, but we need to continue to press other British companies to do the right thing and ensure that that fund has all the money that it needs.

On compensation for workers, in this country we are privileged that we have a body of personal injury law that makes it easy for lawyers to argue on behalf of victims for compensation that truly and accurately reflects lifelong loss of earnings or amenity. We have formulae in our legal system that enable us to provide adequate compensation to victims of injury at work and elsewhere, but I am worried that the robustness that we expect in Britain or elsewhere in Europe or in the States through such legal formulae for deciding rates of compensation, especially in the cases of injuries that prevent someone from being able to work fully for the rest of their life, will not necessarily translate into what will be received by the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster and their families.

I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little about the British Government’s view on compensation, as that is important. We must ensure that the families of those who lost their lives are adequately compensated, as well as the 2,500 people who were injured. Some of them, who are desperately poor, will never be able to work again and, as each day passes, they are getting into more desperate circumstances.

Terrible things happen in faraway parts of the world, but sometimes good can come out of those disasters and it is our duty to try to find that good. One such good is that, for consumers in wealthier parts of the world who enjoy fast and cheap fashion, this is a reminder of the human cost of our £10 dress from a British high street chain. We have responsibility as consumers to think more about that when we are buying and brands need to think not just about the moral and right thing to do, but their reputational risk when they find that they may have contributed in some way to the problems that caused disasters such as Rana Plaza.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood)on securing this very important debate and I thank her for doing so. I acknowledge and admire her conviction and concern on this issue and agree in particular about what she said about the enforcement regime.

The ready-made garment sector is in many ways a huge success story for Bangladesh: it is worth over £13 billion and it provides jobs for more than four million people, of whom over 70% are women. The garment industry supports a further 25 million people across the country. The problem, however, is that the growth in this sector has outpaced the development of the standards that underpin it. Like others around the world, we were all shocked by the appalling loss of life in the tragedy at Savar last year, where more than 1,100 people were killed and a further 2,500 were injured.

In the immediate aftermath, the Department for International Development helped to provide trained volunteers and equipment to help rescue those who were trapped. Many of the injured were taken to the DFID-funded centre for the rehabilitation of the paralysed, which is just 1 km down the road, for treatment and rehabilitation. The collapse was a wake-up call, not only for the garment industry, but for all of us who buy clothes that may be made in Bangladesh. It threw the spotlight on building and fire safety and on the wider working conditions and rights of Bangladeshi garment workers.

I visited Bangladesh at the beginning of April, which was my second visit since the collapse, and I met survivors who have received help from the UK to recover from their injuries and retrain for new jobs. It was moving and inspiring to hear how the survivors have sought to maintain their dignity and re-establish their livelihoods despite receiving such severe injuries and psychological trauma.

We can all learn from their stories. The two that most stuck in my mind were first that of someone called Yusuf, who was paralysed after he ran into the building to help others to escape. The compensation that he has received means that his family has a secure future. I also met Amzad for the second time. He is a double amputee who is being trained at the centre to use prosthetic legs.

I also met the Government, factory owners and the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. I am pleased to say that, one year on from the Rana Plaza tragedy, genuine progress has been made in addressing the many challenges facing the industry, through commitments made by manufacturers, brands, development partners and, as is essential, the Government of Bangladesh. A new labour law has been introduced that allows for greater freedom of association and increased occupational health and safety for workers. Encouragingly—this goes to the nub of what the hon. Lady was referring to—more than one thousand structural, fire and electrical safety inspections have been carried out in the last year. However, a further 2,500 registered garment factories need to have structural, fire and safety inspections and those factories that are not registered need to be identified.

Let me outline the action that the UK Government have taken during the past year to help improve standards in the garment sector. Along with Canada and the Netherlands, the UK is providing £4.8 million to an International Labour Organisation programme to improve working conditions in the sector, which will conduct about 1,500 structural, fire and electrical safety inspections. We have also supported the development of a website and an inspection database for the new Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments. That is exactly the sort of objective that the hon. Lady outlined: to get a common standard across the whole sector so that the good do not pass on lower standards to the bad. We are supporting the development of an efficient, credible and transparent cadre of labour inspectors through training and technical support. The inspectors will ensure compliance with the new labour law and include occupational health and safety and working conditions in their remit. Training for the inspectors begins next month.

When I was in Bangladesh earlier this month, I launched three new projects that will help staff at all levels in garment factories to work together to improve the working environment by addressing issues such as fire safety, absenteeism and working hours. The projects will provide training for middle managers in labour standards and, critically, improve the health care provided to factory workers—in essence, by having a nurse in every factory. DFID is also helping to launch a new programme that will focus on building industrial relations inside factories—on the spot—so that management and workers are better able to prevent, identify and solve problems in the work place.

On compensation, as the hon. Lady said, Primark—which first of all got attacked in the press—has in fact been an absolute market leader and exemplar in how it has paid out long-term compensation to workers and their families. I am aware that some other companies have made smaller additional contributions. I use this opportunity today to ask other UK companies to step up and contribute to help the Rana Plaza workers.

At the heart of the issue is the idea that companies must take responsibility for all the workers in their supply chain. The best brands do the best things, and British companies can be a force for good by enforcing improvements in their supply chain. I urge all brands, companies and retailers to think about their sourcing practices and to introduce more transparency into supply chains. Those standards have to go all the way from the till at which a garment is sold right back to the sewing machine where it is made.

The garment industry is having a positive impact on social change and women’s empowerment, by providing women with opportunities to work outside the home, to earn their own money, to help support their family and to have an alternative to early marriage. The empowerment of women must be allowed to continue and flourish within the garment sector. We want to see continued growth, rather than boycotting or abandonment, so that the sector can continue to flourish as an important part of the economy, thus increasing the number of safer and better jobs for women in particular.

The UK will continue to support work towards the goal of building a healthy, safe and sustainable garment sector in Bangladesh that benefits everyone. The priority now, assisted by today’s debate, which was initiated by the hon. Lady, is to maintain momentum and use this first-year anniversary to push for continuing further progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.