Lord Tariq Ahmad, minister of state for the Commonwealth and the United Nations, is urging more fashion retailers to collaborate with the government to usher in meaningful change, following a visit to India and Bangladesh earlier this month.
Not only is the garment sector crucial to the UK economy, supporting more than half a million jobs; it is also one of the engines of global growth employing more than 24 million people.
In my capacity as minister for the Commonwealth, human rights and modern slavery, I visited two key countries in the sector: India and Bangladesh. India is the world’s second-largest textile producer and Bangladesh is the second-largest garment producer.
Apart from jobs and tax revenues, the industry has an important social impact. In South Asia – where 80% of garment workers are female – the sector provides large-scale employment opportunities for women and contributes to their economic independence.
Since 2013, the UK government has played its part. We have helped the Government of Bangladesh assess more than 1,500 factories for structural, fire and electrical safety. We have supported the recovery of nearly 300 Rana Plaza survivors. We have also taken bold steps both at home and abroad to tackle abuse and exploitation by strengthening and implementing our own legislation in the form of the landmark 2015 Modern Slavery Act.
But government cannot act alone; reform requires a collaborative approach between the state, industry and workers’ groups.
The Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013 was a wake-up call and rightly shone a spotlight on some of the worst elements of the industry: inadequate health and safety conditions, abuse of workers’ rights and extremely low wages. It demonstrated that exploitation of workers is a false economy and consumers will not tolerate the outsourcing of corporate responsibilities. The tragic loss of life led to the start of large-scale reform. It made the industry, government and consumers alike begin to take serious steps to act more responsibly.
Retailers play a central role as intermediaries between manufacturers and consumers. More than 30 leading UK brands collaborate in the business group Accord and Alliance, which drives groundbreaking initiatives between the government, international unions and retailers. Together with the Bangladesh government’s own programmes, it has to date helped 3,780 factories to plan improvements to buildings and fire safety systems, and trained more than one million workers on workplace safety.
In India, partnership between industry and the government also led to the creation of the Gender Equality Project, promoting human rights and a safe working environment for 10,000 female factory workers in India. The collaboration doesn’t end there; we’ve been working in partnership with major UK brands on training and we’ve also invested £18m into improving the productivity of garment factories by developing the skills of entry level workers. For many low-wage workers, basic skills training can be the difference between economic empowerment and persistent poverty.
Our work has shown that paying a decent wage and up-skilling workers ultimately leads to increased efficiency and productivity. Factory owners in Bangladesh have welcomed this and responded by investing £1.2m in new facilities and training over the last year.
The reform of the sector is real and ongoing, and the collaborative approach is gaining impetus. There is still more to do but we are moving in the right direction. Ultimately, workers’ rights are not just a moral and legal obligation; they are also a commercial necessity for British companies and developing economies alike.
Lord Tariq Ahmad was appointed as the minister of state for the Commonwealth and the United Nations in June.