Skip to main content

UK Clothing Sector: Safety

Volume 745: debated on Monday 13 May 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that retailers operating in the United Kingdom clothing sector take a rigorous approach to ensuring that people working throughout their supply chains enjoy safe and secure working conditions.

My Lords, the Bangladesh garment factory tragedies bring into sharp focus the challenges arising from blurred and multiple supply chains in retail and the protection and well-being of those who manufacture. BIS is working closely with DfID, the FCO, overseas Governments and companies to secure improvements in working conditions and invest in assessing risks. We are supporting voluntary initiatives and international principles to reform legislation and regulation.

I thank the Minister for his response and for indicating that some action is beginning to take place. Does he agree that it is damaging for retailers in the UK to be associated with making profit on the backs of cheap labour working in dangerous conditions? Does he agree that the Government have a leadership role to play in working in partnership with retail outlets in order to ensure that their operational and business models are changed and can address the seriousness of this situation?

I thank the noble Baroness for that. Indeed, it can be damaging for businesses. I know that many of them, including Primark, are already working extremely hard to help at the sharp end in Bangladesh in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy. Before I go on, can we not rejoice at the rescue of the seamstress a couple of days ago while remembering, of course, that 1,000 people died?

Many companies now have a corporate social responsibility department, and it is within that area that companies and businesses need to drive forward their responsibilities. From the Government’s perspective, in terms of reporting, we are bringing in from 1 October a mandatory report on human rights issues.

Will my noble friend consider asking the Bangladeshi authorities whether we could offer advice on ensuring that building regulations in Dhaka are fit for purpose and that inspectors police the enforcement of building regulations free of corruption?

My noble friend makes a very important point. We welcome the statement by the Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary that Rana Plaza is “a turning point in Bangladesh’s history”. I know that the Bangladeshi Government have taken this dreadful tragedy extremely seriously. I understand that they have shut down 18 factories, some of which have reopened on the basis of rigorous safety certificates.

Does the Minister not agree that although corporate social responsibility is clearly important in this matter, what is really at stake is a business model for many of these retailers which depends upon being able to sell clothes at prices that are, frankly, ridiculously low? I am just as guilty as most other people of taking advantage of that opportunity when I see it, but I would really rather not have it before me. Will the Minister say in what way the Government can help to educate the market in this country to understand the price of low prices?

I understand that even if wages were doubled in Bangladesh—I know that we are talking about a health and safety issue—it would put only 2p on the price of a T-shirt, so there are some real issues to tackle. As I mentioned earlier, this is a cross-departmental issue. For example, DfID is supporting the ethical trading initiative which is a leading alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs, and the Government very much support it. Secondly, DfID, with government support, is supporting the Responsible and Accountable Garment Sector challenge fund, known as RAGS, so a number of initiatives are being pushed by the Government, and we continue to put the necessary pressure on the retail organisations.

I have lived and worked in that part of the world. Is my noble friend aware that there is nothing wrong with the building regulations? It is entirely a matter of whether the buildings are inspected. Clearly, the loading on the floors of this particular factory was far in excess of what it should have been. Can the Government not think of something practical to do? We have high commissioners in Commonwealth countries and ambassadors in non-Commonwealth countries. We usually have a trade section. Why can we not have someone within our own sphere of interest liaising principally with the importers in the UK and the major retailers—

It is not too long when more than 1,000 people were killed. Why can we not have someone liaising with the two parties to ensure that this sort of tragedy does not happen again?

There are two strands to that. First, I reassure my noble friend that Governments, particularly the UK Government, are working extremely hard with the Bangladesh Government and others at all levels—political and diplomatic—to get to the bottom of the reasons behind this dreadful collapse. Secondly, there is now even greater pressure on organisations to look at their supply-chain management and the multiplicity of those links, to be sure that health and safety issues at the beginning of the supply chain are up to scratch.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that retailers need to put resources into providing safe conditions, particularly by having personnel on the ground in the areas affected by this kind of tragedy?

The right reverend Prelate makes a good point. Many retailers in this country have individuals on the ground. Primark, for example, has somebody on the ground; they are working hard to deal with the aftermath of the disaster and looking ahead at remedies.

My Lords, what is the Government’s response to Muhammad Yunus’s call for an international minimum wage for those working in the garment industry, the level of this wage to be agreed upon by the foreign buyers?

The issue of wages is clearly linked. We have obviously been talking about a very serious health and safety issue with the factory collapsing. I alluded to wages before and, again, further pressure needs to be brought on organisations to be sure that a decent wage, however defined, is paid out in these particular countries.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the owner of that company had listened to the concerns of the workers who complained the day before about cracks in the building then this tragedy could possibly have been averted? That stresses the importance of having independent trade unions, independent health and safety committees and workers committees in these factories if we are to ensure a safe future for the workers.

The noble Lord makes a very good point. From our perspective in Britain, we need to exert as much pressure as we can to encourage greater communication between workers, workers’ representatives and Governments in countries such as Bangladesh.