Covid-19 sparked unprecedented global pressures for suppliers and manufacturers as well as retailers and brands, as economies were effectively shut down. During this period too many western brands failed to work with their suppliers to adjust to these circumstances and mitigate impacts on suppliers and workers.
In the last week, a study by the University of Aberdeen has shed a necessary light on the impact of global clothing retailers’ unfair practices on Bangladeshi suppliers during Covid-19. 11 ETI members have been implicated in the report.
What did ETI do to protect workers’ rights during Covid-19?
ETI sets out a standard for worker’s rights and provides guidance and support on applying the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Each ETI member company is responsible for how these are applied in their supply chain. In response to the onset of Covid-19, ETI engaged with company members on how the pandemic was affecting their global supply chains, to gain transparency on the reality of their business situation and how this was impacting their practices and supplier relationships. By July 2020, we placed a set of specific enhanced expectations on company members, which detailed actions necessary to address and mitigate adverse impacts on workers’ rights during the crisis, including ensuring orders were paid for. The ETI secretariat also worked with its tripartite members of NGOs, trade unions and companies to develop up to date guidance and briefings and engaged in direct projects to support suppliers in protecting workers from Covid-19 in key markets, including in Bangladesh.
“Following rapid needs assessments in local factories, we designed a programme that combined training with provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), to support suppliers to implement health and safety measures to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. We implemented this programme with 20 Dhaka-based suppliers, to reduce the impact of the pandemic on the local economy, by ensuring suppliers could trade whilst safeguarding the health of workers. Close to 48,000 workers received Covid-19 health and safety kits, including sanitisers and PPE, with 87% of workers reporting improved safety at work. We convened bi-monthly virtual meetings with factory managers to identify challenges and jointly design mitigation strategies, and shared lessons learned with brands and other stakeholders.”
Abil Amin, Country Manager, ETI Bangladesh
“ETI works tirelessly with members, suppliers, local government, and other stakeholders to implement practices that protect workers’ rights. However, we also know that there are few guarantees in complex global supply chains, which is why our approach is one of continuous improvement and engagement based on applying the UNGPs and the ETI Base Code. While we know from company member feedback and engagement that we were able to influence their practices in some cases during the pandemic this was not comprehensive, as the University of Aberdeen’s study describes. Covid-19 and its impact was unprecedented but that does not excuse companies from making their best efforts to mitigate the impacts for suppliers and workers in their supply chains.”
Peter McAllister, Executive Director, ETI
What are ETI doing to combat these unfair business practices now?
The pandemic has taught us key lessons, and we continually engage with Bangladeshi suppliers to consider these and how to avoid further negative impacts in these very difficult economic times. The fashion sector is vast with many actors, but throughout the pandemic and continuing today ETI remains vocal about the need to protect workers’ rights globally. Sadly, the practices which this study highlights are not new to the sector, but there is no doubt that responses amid Covid-19 exacerbated them significantly. Studies such as this remain invaluable in shining a light on unacceptable practices which continue to be present in the sector and need to be driven out.
ETI works with directly company members and suppliers to improve business practices across global supply chains to overcome these issues. We co-host The Industry We Want, promote the Common Framework for Responsible Purchasing Practices among company members and partner with initiatives like Better Buying Institute to ensure buyers hear from suppliers about what works well and what doesn’t. There is a need to be able to hold companies who abuse their buying power to account and enable suppliers to raise issues without fear of repercussions. Alongside others, ETI has been supporting efforts by the EU to introduce a meaningful directive based on the UNGPs, which could meet this need, not just for fashion but for all business sectors. While in principle we agree with the need for more effective accountability it is not clear that a UK Fashion Watchdog is the best solution, however we will be engaging with our member Transform Trade to understand more.