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Buying clothes without remorse

Sanjiv Burman, BangladeshOctober 8, 2015

The throw-away price for a pair of jeans may soon be a thing of the past. Thanks to a proposed fair-trade label, German consumers will soon be buying "ethical clothing" from Bangladesh. DW's Sanjiv Burman reports.

Näherin Textilverarbeiterin Bangladesch billige Kleidung
Image: Reuters

At a women's cafe in Dhaka, Ayesha (not her real name) and a handful of other women are waiting to meet German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Mueller. They are all victims of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster that claimed the lives of more than 1000 people.

For these garment workers, it's been a usual hard day at work. They often work up to 14 hours a day. But they're pleased to have the opportunity to voice their concerns and to learn about their rights. The women's cafe was set up precisely for this reason.

This and other effective and practical measures are part of a so-called "Textile Partnership" initiated by Mueller designed to make a difference on the ground.

Dilemma over responsibility

The disaster at Rana Plaza in April 2013 shook the world. Many consumers realized that a T-shirt which cost just euros, or a pair of jeans that cost 15 euros, could not be produced without someone being exploited in the supply chain.

Bangladesch Deutsche Hilfe für Textilbranche
Most of the predominantly female textile workers are not aware of their rightsImage: DW/S. Burman

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, the usual blame game flared up. But just who is responsible? It became clear that to achieve a meaningful and effective solution, all stakeholders had to be on board. It had to be a "win-win" solution for everyone: the workers, the suppliers, the retailers and the consumers. It was in this context that the 'Textile Partnership' emerged.

Doing nothing was no longer an option. Public opinion called for a moral obligation and that level of pressure brought the stakeholders together. Each party was won over by the German minister's plans for a textile alliance. Chains like Tchibo, ALDI, H&M and C&A stood to benefit from an improved public image and therefore more business. The textile factories would benefit too. And of course the biggest beneficiaries would be the garment workers themselves.

Multi-stakeholder concept

The uniqueness of this holistic approach lies in its pragmatic and practical measures. A big player in the partnership has been Bangladesh's major garment exporter DBL group, which also joined the initiative. The company's commitment drew a shower of praise from the visiting German minister.

Bangladesch Deutsche Hilfe für Textilbranche Gerd Müller
Factories are being encouraged to set up day-care centersImage: DW/S. Burman

The "Textile Partnership" combines international pressure with incentives for all stakeholders across the supply chain in the hope that gradually all concerned parties will join the network and create better working conditions for the workers.

Other international initiatives such as "Accord" and "Alliance" also exist. Their aim too, is to improve working conditions and safety for the garment workers in Bangladesh.

Roy Ramesh Chandra, President of the United Federation of Garments Workers (UFGW), has doubts about certain aspects of the efforts – especially workers' rights.

In spite of efforts to encourage trade union activities, only participatory committees are being tolerated. As in many cases, influential politicians across the parties are also owners of garment factories, so there is a clear conflict of interest. Roy Ramesh Chandra sees this nexus as a big hurdle.

On the road to progress

So far one of the biggest achievements of the "Textile Partnership" has been the creation of a National Employment Injury Insurance System. A letter of intent has been signed between the German and Bangladeshi governments along with the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Bangladesch Deutsche Hilfe für Textilbranche Gerd Müller
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke with German Minister Gerd Mueller about the garment industryImage: DW/S. Burman

Germany has also played a constructive role in the compensation process of the Rana Plaza victims – among other things, by developing a special software to calculate the monetary amount.

Several German public organizations such as GIZ as well as NGOs are active in Bangladesh and are seeking to facilitate the measures. Their presence and tenacity are certainly contributing to the implementation of the goals.