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Rana Plaza: Fashion Industry

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 10 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in their discussions with fashion retailers with regard to the implications for the fashion industry of the Rana Plaza disaster in April.

My Lords, we want the fashion industry to remain engaged in Bangladesh. It is important for jobs and growth. DfID, with the International Labour Organisation, is working with the Government and fashion brands to seek real improvements to working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories, and many UK brands have now joined the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which has over 100 members.

I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. She will be aware, as will other noble Lords, that 1,130 people died in the Rana Plaza tragedy earlier this year. Seven months on, there are still employees in garment factories in Bangladesh who lose their lives, their health or their employment. Fatal building collapses and fires are not the only problem that the fashion industry has to face, and in spite of companies signing up to accords and agreements on factory safety, there is still a long way to go. Does the noble Baroness agree that the objective to maximise good rather than minimise harm is the right one, and that the Government should support and encourage fashion retailers to take full responsibility for monitoring what happens throughout the supply chain and to change their business models so as to move away from their dependency on cheap, throwaway fashion? Also—I know that this is not her department—while BIS’s aim to produce a framework for action on corporate responsibility is welcome, is she able to tell the House the extent to which DfID will be co-operating with BIS, as clearly the fashion trade operates globally?

My Lords, this was a major disaster. We want to do everything we can to make sure that such disasters do not happen in future. Both the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I made reference to the fact that the United Kingdom is doing a lot in Bangladesh, not least through the accord, which is legally binding and to which a number of UK and European companies have signed up. In the United Kingdom, we are working with British companies for the very reasons that the noble Baroness outlines. In September, the United Kingdom launched its action plan on business and human rights to give effect to the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. Its purpose is to see the changes that the noble Baroness identifies right the way through the chain of operations. Next spring, there will be an event focusing on this.

The general retail industry, and importers in general, have reacted very well in embargoing factories that employ children. This was relatively easy for them, because they sent their inspectors to the factory and the position was clear. In the case of possible structural damage to buildings, the ability to appraise this is beyond the expertise of most commercial enterprises. After all—to take, for example, one of Britain’s leading retailers—Sir Philip Green is many things but he is not a structural engineer. Is it not the responsibility of Governments in those countries to ensure that building regulations are complied with and that safety certificates are issued which will assure importers that the manufacture of their goods in those factories is done in a correct and proper fashion? Will the Minister send a strong message to those countries, warning them that if those certificates are not forthcoming, it could result in the banning of importation of goods from factories that do not comply?

The noble Lord is right to identify responsibilities here. There are responsibilities, as the noble Baroness indicated in her original Question, in terms of the brands themselves and the work that they do. Clearly there are responsibilities in the countries concerned. In the case of Bangladesh, there is a legally binding accord that includes the unions representing garment workers, and independent structural and fire safety inspections are being undertaken of the factories from which these companies are sourcing. It is very important to make sure that regulation is in place and that it is properly implemented,

My Lords, the Rana Plaza and Tazreen disasters would have been avoided if statutory building codes and fire regulations had been observed. As DfID staff in Dhaka have noted, non-compliance poses a real threat to workers across the country. What were the outcomes of the UKTI-led discussions in Dhaka this May about the availability of British services to improve the quality of construction in Bangladesh? Does my noble friend agree that with Bangladesh lying at 136th out of 175 in Transparency International’s list of perceived most corrupt countries, some progress in DfID’s initiatives on fighting corruption there is imperative?

My noble friend is quite right in his final point. DfID sent three UK experts to Bangladesh in September. They are assessing needs and helping to inform work on supporting the enforcement of regulations. It is also extremely important to support the Bangladeshi Government’s financial management and make sure that is more transparent, including on budgeting, accounting, auditing and scrutiny. We are supporting NGOs to bring corruption to light, because that is the way that these regulations will be properly enforced.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the vice chair of the Ethical Trading Initiative, an organisation supported by DfID that has had a continuing and leading involvement in trying to improve the conditions of workers in supply chains. Does the Minister agree that audits and safety inspections cannot offer a complete solution, and that the best protection of workers’ safety is the right to belong to and be represented by a free and independent trade union? What efforts are the Government making to ensure that this takes place?

The Ethical Trading Initiative played a part in getting companies to sign up to the accord and in drawing up its scope. As I mentioned in my previous answer, there is trade union involvement in that, because it is extremely important in trying to ensure that people are informed of their rights.