Global labour rights

Rose Hunter in conversation with Daisy Gardener

Daisy Gardener is Oxfam’s Labour Rights Coordinator. Daisy and I met at Oxfam’s Melbourne office to talk about global labour rights, the Rana Plaza factory tragedy which occurred earlier this year in Bangladesh, and how Australian consumers can act to protect workers’ rights.

Daisy described Oxfam’s history of support for labour rights over 15 years, focusing predominantly on sportswear companies such as Nike and Adidas. Oxfam’s work generally involves researching conditions in factories and supporting workers campaigns to improve conditions. Daisy explained how Oxfam gets involved in this work:

“In a place like Indonesia, workers will try to form unions in a factory. Often when they form a union and try to ask for better wages and conditions we see workers being sacked or beaten for trying to improve conditions. When that happens sometimes workers ask us to support their campaigns.

We’ll get Australian consumers to write letters to the companies that are buying from those factories. So we use consumer pressure to get the companies, whether it’s Nike or Adidas or others, to improve things in the factories and make sure that the workers are able to form unions and ask for better conditions.”

In the past Oxfam have also focused on Australian companies such as Pacific Brands and the Just Group.

“A couple of years ago we approached Just Group and more recently Pacific Brands about denim sandblasting, a process where workers hold a power hose which shoots out sand particles onto jeans to give them the distressed look. This process was giving workers silicosis and there were a number of reported deaths internationally from that.”

More recently, Oxfam have focused their attention on Bangladesh after the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse led to the deaths of over 1200 workers.

Daisy explained:

“In April, a multi-storey building called Rana Plaza collapsed and it housed several garment factories on different levels. The death toll was more than 1200 workers and many were also seriously injured. Most of those workers were young women, garment workers making clothes for international companies. In Australia we were really concerned that there were a number of Australian companies like Cotton On, Big W and Target who were sourcing from Bangladesh.”

Daisy explained that since 2005, 1800 workers have died from a number of factory fires and collapses (including Rana Plaza). “So this collapse in April wasn’t the first time that workers have died in factories.”

Oxfam have recently been campaigning to get Australian companies to join the international Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh led by Industriall Global Union in response to the tragedy. “There are now more than 60 companies including European, American and now – since the week before last – Kmart and Target joined. And today Forever New and Cotton On just joined. We’re really hoping in the coming weeks that Big W will also join.”

Daisy explained the key aspects of the accord:

“There will be independent inspections of factories. At the moment companies pay other companies to do those inspections and there are often instances of audit fraud. So these will be independently run inspections by qualified safety experts. The safety audits will be published – publicly available so people know that those safety audits are taking place.

The other important thing is that workers will be able to refuse dangerous work. If they go into a factory and they see cracks in the walls, or they notice that there’s no way to escape if there’s a fire, under this accord they will be able to stop work without losing their jobs. The day before the Rana Plaza collapse, huge cracks appeared in the walls. Workers were told ‘if you don’t go back to work, you’ll lose your job.’

The day before the Rana Plaza collapse, huge cracks appeared in the walls. Workers were told ‘if you don’t go back to work, you’ll lose your job.’

Another things is that under the accord, workers will have health and safety training, and ways they can make complaints through worker-led health and safety committees.”

In addition to the accord, Oxfam are also asking companies to publicly release the locations of their supplier factories around the world.

“There are a number of companies that have already done this, so if you go to Nike’s website or Adidas’ or Levis’ you can actually download a full list of their supplier factories. This is important because it means that Oxfam or any group can know where the factories are, visit them and talk to the workers to independently verify the conditions.”

Daisy reiterated that these problems are not isolated to Bangladesh:

“Unfortunately low wages, very long hours of work and a lack of being able to join a union at the factory level are commonplace right across Asia and globally in the garment industry. Most garment workers are young women, many have migrated from rural areas into the cities to find work and they don’t know what their rights are. They are vulnerable to exploitation and also even sexual harassment by male supervisors in the factories.

We know that workers don’t receive more than the bare minimum wage and that’s simply not enough for them to survive on. So we hear about them skipping meals and there have been reports in Cambodia of malnutrition among workers because they are just not able to feed themselves and their families properly on their base wage.

When companies place orders into the factories, sometimes they will place a huge number of orders and ask for it to be done really quickly. That will mean that you’ll see workers working right through the night until or 4 am – really long shifts – and that can lead to accident, injury and strain. So there are really poor conditions across the board unfortunately.”

While it may seem far away, many Australians are now much more aware of how their choices as consumers affect garment workers in places like Bangladesh.

“We know that a lot of Australians were really deeply shocked by the factory collapse in Bangladesh. We’ve had a lot of people contacting Oxfam asking ‘what can I do?’ and ‘which clothing can I buy?’”

However, there are many ways Australian consumers can act:

“When you go shopping, have a think about what you’re buying and have a look at the label. If it’s made in Bangladesh, spare a thought for the person who made those clothes. You can write to the companies and ask them to join the accord if you notice it’s made in Bangladesh, and we’ve seen a lot of people doing that. Oxfam have a petition online at the moment asking Big W to join the Bangladesh accord – so people can take action there.

When you go shopping, have a think about what you’re buying…

We’ve seen a lot of people go to companies’ Facebook pages in recent weeks and register their concern about the conditions of the workers, ask them to publish the locations of their factories to enable independent monitoring and verification of conditions and, if they are in Bangladesh, to sign the accord. We’ve had companies mention to us that they have noticed a lot of social media discussions on this issue. Consumers can shop more carefully and approach companies directly and ask them to do more.”

Daisy noted Ethical Clothing Australia, a list of companies committed to transparency with regard to their garment factories, is a positive initiative: “For example, Cue – you can buy your whole business suit made in Australia.”

Demand for initiatives like this shows that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how their choices affect others. Despite the seeming disconnect between the everyday person in Australia and the global factories that their clothes come from, we can make a real difference to the lives of the garment workers that make them.