Australia’s fashion industry hiding behind policies a decade on from Rana Plaza disaster: Special Edition Ethical Fashion Report Australia reveals, 20 April 2022. A new report from Baptist World Aid reveals that some of Australia’s most beloved clothing brands and retailers have since then failed to make any significant progress to improve the lives and conditions of their background garment workers in the ten years since the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse.
What were the major findings of the report?
The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster killed around 1,130 Bangladeshi workers in one of the deadliest industrial accidents in global history. That same year, Baptist World Aid started the Ethical Fashion Report to drive change through necessary public scrutiny. The 2022 report critiqued 120 companies representing almost 600 brands, with this 2023 special edition tracking performance and changes from about 25 companies worldwide assessed from 2013 to 2022.
These companies are still only reaching an average ethical benchmark of 43.6/100, with areas of greatest progress including policy development, supply chain tracing, and transparency.
Analysis that modelled the pace of change of these 25 companies over the current progress of the full cohort of 120 companies revealed that the industry is decades away from delivering on most of their stipulated ethical goals. For example, paying a living wage at a minimum of one factory per company will not happen until the turn of the century in around the year, 2098.
What were the industry predictions from the report?
Baptist World Aid’s new analysis of ethical changes across 25 companies since the tragic Rana Plaza disaster predicts at the current pace of change it will take Australia’s fashion industry:
- 75 years for all companies to pay a living wage at a minimum of 1 factory each.
- 30 years for all companies to achieve traceability of more than 75% of raw materials and fibre producers.
- 17 years before all companies make grievance mechanisms available to workers at a minimum of 1 factory each.
Soberingly, some of the actions that would do the most to prevent another major disaster are still years away from being implemented and put into practice. The ability for garment workers to raise grievances at just one factory for each of the companies assessed isn’t predicted until the year 2040, despite this being a key factor at Rana Plaza with workers aware of safety issues in the factory but unable to anonymously raise concerns without fear of retribution.
Their analysis also found the industry is 30 years away from all companies tracing a minimum of three quarters of their raw materials suppliers, which is a basic step towards addressing modern slavery. The raw materials tier is the highest risk area for modern slavery in the fashion supply chain, and without this visibility of where their cotton and other fibers come from, global companies cannot put in place measures to prevent and address exploitation.
What improvements have been made in the industry?
Advances in policy development, supply chain tracing, and transparency have led to 84% of the 25 companies having a form of responsible purchasing practices in place (vs. 40% in 2013) and 80% having a publicly published list of some or even all final stage suppliers (vs. 24% in 2013).
Improvements in supply chain tracing and other ethical sourcing initiatives do see this cohort outpace the broader fashion industry by 11 points, with the full group of 120 companies assessed in 2022 averaging 29/100 – demonstrating the necessary positive impact of transparency, industry benchmarking and consistent public scrutiny as well as accountability.
When it comes to garment factory workers, 84% of the 25 companies assessed in both 2022 and 2013 now have a Code of Conduct aligned to international best practice standards on global workers’ rights, such as elimination of child labour, freedom of association amongst workers, and also the right to collective union bargaining, up from just 28% in the year, 2013.
Why aren’t these improvements enough to create tangible change?
Moving policies beyond paper and into practice paints a bleaker picture. None of the 25 companies could evidence collective bargaining agreements present for over three quarters of their final stage suppliers, and 16% are able to evidence living wage payments at final stage factories. This compares to 5% and 10% respectively for the full cohort measured in 2022.
Sarah Knop, Advocacy Manager at Baptist World Aid, said that fashion companies can no longer hide behind their policies and public commitments. “It’s been 10 years since the Rana Plaza collapse devastated families of many garment workers in Bangladesh and awoke shoppers to the exploitation faced by the people who make clothes. But there remains a huge gap between what companies have committed to on paper and what real change is happening for workers”.
“The simple fact is; policies must be backed by proof of action, otherwise the problem will continue to worsen as it has done for the past decade. 50 million people live in modern slavery, compared to 30 million in 2013, with the fashion industry a key cause,” Knop said.
“Australians are some of the biggest consumers of clothing around the world, on average purchasing 14.8kg or 56 items of new clothing per year. We invite the general public in Australia to use their power to help push the global fashion industry to become one that respects its workers as well as the planet by using our Speak Out tool, which enables shoppers to send pre-written emails to brands, imploring them to do and be better,” Knop commented.
Which fashion companies have made the most progress?
While much remains to be done, it’s not all terrible news: some brands, including Kmart and David Jones, have made some improvements since 2013, ranking in the top 5 most improved.
Most improved companies from 2013 and least improved companies from 2013
- Kmart: 2013 D, 2022 Top 20%
2. Lacoste: 2013 F, 2022 Top 40%
3. David Jones: 2013 F, 2022 Top 40%
4. Lululemon: 2013 C-, 2022 Top 20%
5. VF Corp: 2013 C+, 2022 Top 20%
6. Sussan Group: 2013 C-, 2022 Middle 20%
7. Myer: 2013 D+, 2022 Middle 20%
8. Cue Clothing Co: 2013 B, 2022 Middle 20%
9. Forever 21: 2013 D-, 2022 2022 Bottom 20%
10. Abercrombie & Fitch: 2013 D+, 2022 Bottom 40%
What did the interviewed garment workers have to say?
Aleya, 35, from Bangladesh said, “In most of the factories I worked in, child labour was present. When the buyers or compliance officers visited the factory, they used to hide all the children on the roof or in some back-end rooms. The factories gave them the same salary as a helper, but the supervisors would verbally abuse them and also make them work overtime.”
“I worked long hours and then overtime and sometimes overnight. There was a lot of pressure to get things done. It was possible to go to the toilet and have a drink of water, but we had to be quick, otherwise supervisors would shout at us” added Layla, a Bangladesh garment worker.