Following a string of deadly incidents in Bangladesh’s garment industry, German sports gear maker Adidas is encouraging workers in the factories of its Asian suppliers to text grievances about their working conditions.
Workers employed in the factories of Adidas' Asian suppliers can in future use a text message limited to 160 characters to complain about their working conditions or when they feel their rights have been violated. Adidas said the initiative is a step towards improving labor conditions in the country.
Adidas said it has been testing the SMS initiative since last year at a factory in Indonesia. "We realized that almost everyone there has a mobile phone," an Adidas spokeswoman told DW.
Under the program, workers at a supplier can anonymously send text messages directly to Adidas when they feel their rights have been breached. The text messages will first go to the management at the various suppliers. "But we have access to them and can see what the problems are," the spokeswoman said.
If Adidas sees the need for direct intervention and action, she added, it would commission local non-governmental organizations to tackle the issue.
String of disasters
It's not the first time that western retailers and brands selling apparel made in Asia have come under fire for not doing enough to improve labor conditions there.
Last month, a building housing garment factories in Dhaka collapsed, sparking days of painstaking rescue efforts in which hundreds were pulled from the rubble. Authorities say the death toll now stands at over 900. It was well-known that the building had structural faults and workers entered it on the morning of the disaster only because they were forced to.
The incident was one of many deadly catastrophes that have rocked the Bangladesh garment industry in recent years. Last September, a fire broke out a garment factory, killing 112 people. The emergency exists were reportedly blocked, trapping many workers who burned to death.
The incident has raised pressure on Western retailers and brands with ties to Bangladesh to address public concerns about working standards there. Many non-governmental groups have repeatedly accused retailers like Adidas of simply doing nothing when workers in supplier factors complain about poor safety conditions.
Maike Pflaum from the Christian charity Romero said he remained skeptical of Adidas' latest SMS hotline project. "Labor conditions in Asia are generally poor," he told DW. "The SMS is a drop in the ocean and quite ridiculous."
Adidas, Pflaum said, is interested in lowering prices, and should instead focus on improving production standards rather than diverting attention from real problems with an SMS program.
Adidas defends move
Adidas however has rejected the allegations, saying the text message campaign isn't just a marketing stunt.
"The SMS hotline is an additional program which we're using to ensure that our workers stay safe," the Adidas spokeswoman said. "That's why we don't think it's ridiculous."
Big problems emerge when there's a lack of communication, she pointed out. "We were of the view that it's important to change that," she said. She added that Adidas has for years pushed for better working conditions in its suppliers' factories. "Among other things, we've hired 65 specialists who visit companies around the world and monitor whether workers' rights are being upheld."
In a recent statement, Adidas management board member Glenn Bennett insisted the company was working on improving labor conditions. "We are always trying to continue to improve worker conditions in the factories of our suppliers. The protection of their interest is our primary goal."
Adidas not an exception
But NGOs aren't buying the talk. "At the moment, a fire protection law is being debated in Bangladesh," Maik Pflaum pointed out. "Consumer goods firm Tchibo and clothing company Phillips-Van Heusen are two big companies that have signed it. Adidas however refuses to do the same."
Plaum added that the SMS hotline campaign was "hypocritical" because Adidas did not want to change structural problems. "Adidas is raising pressure on entire countries. That goes to the point, where for example, minimum wages aren't being raised," Pflaum said. He pointed to China as an example. "After China raised minimum wages for two years in a row, Adidas CEO Herbert Haine said the company would in future build factories in other countries."
It's only when workers get more pay, can additional projects such as an SMS hotline make sense, Pflaum said. "Around the world, people who stitch clothes for the sports gear maker, earn just a fraction of what they need to ensure their basic needs are met. The company must ensure that these wages are raised."
But others say that Adidas is only the tip of the iceberg. Sophie Koers from the Dutch NGO Fair Ware Foundation said there are plenty of rotten apples in the industry.
"It applies to all multinational textile companies," Koers said. "On the one hand they say they want to improve working conditions but on the other hand, they insist on quick and cheap production," she said, adding you just can't have both.