May day protests: Supply chain ethics in the wake of Rana Plaza

International Workers' Day sees people around the world celebrate or challenge worker’s rights in their country. On May 1st this year, several nations witnessed protests directly related to their garment industries just a week after the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy.

Workers around the world

Thousands of workers in Bangladesh took part in protests demanding the execution of the owner of Rana Plaza, whose collapse last year killed more than 1,100 garment workers. Union leader Nazma Akterbelieves that the Rana Plaza collapse has led Bangladeshi women to grow more active in the union, which has already secured an increase in the minimum wage for textile workers (from £13.20 to £24.75 per month). However, Bangladesh still has some way to go to guarantee positive working conditions for all garment workers.

The same can be said for many other countries and their garment industries. In Cambodia, demonstrators suffered police violence after a Labour Day rally in Phnom Penh was forcefully dispersed. Human Rights Watch has criticised the Cambodian government, stating that they “appeared to be sharply limiting registrations of unions, which could harm workers who depend on union protection.”

A ban on demonstrations in Cambodia has been in place since January, following several violent protests led by thousands of garment workers demanding higher pay. Nevertheless, at least 30,000 Cambodian garment workers recently went on strike after finding that some companies had offered employees a bonus to ignore scheduled industrial action over minimum wage increases.

Elsewhere, workers utilised a newfound ability to exercise freedom of speech. Hundreds of protestors inYangon, Myanmar called for better working conditions to be enforced in the country where the new reformist government has only recently granted workers the right to form trade unions and hold strikes. Workers across Indonesia also celebrated their first ever official May Day national holidayand thousands of protesters in Jakarta called for a rise in wages.

Worker’s Rights within Supply Chain Strategy

Supply chain management in the apparel industry can be complex, especially where subcontracting and secondary supply chains are involved. However, many high street retailers have learnt the importance of using ethical suppliers from the much-publicised fallout of the disaster at Rana Plaza.

Supply chain transparency plays an essential role in corporate social responsibility, and a recent article in Drapers urged players in the apparel industry to investigate their suppliers’ ethical credentials. Mitigating risk in any sector's supply chain is critical to its reputation. Yet a year after Rana Plaza, poor supply chain strategy is still commonplace in the garment industry and continues to damage brand reputation. While most retailers keep a close eye on their immediate suppliers, few have visibility beyond this.

‘Ethics Gremlins’ – Why Trust is Not Enough

Recent research by supply chain risk management company Achilles found ethics ‘gremlins’ hiding in manufacturing supply chains. 96% of manufacturers said they felt confident that they were effectively managing risks in their supply chain, yet only 47% of manufacturers had ‘mapped’ their supply chain strategy to identify the exact identity of all their suppliers. Only 51% of UK manufacturers are regularly and thoroughly auditing their direct (tier 1) suppliers, and only 38% of manufacturers audit their indirect (Tier 2) suppliers. Even more worryingly, around 20% of large manufacturers claimed confidence in their suppliers' ethical compliance is based on personal relationships.

The results were unveiled just weeks after the Home Office published a draft version of the Modern Slavery Bill, which may enforce businesses to disclose steps taken to eradicate slavery from their supply chains. Garment retailer and manufacturers must identify and audit all suppliers to achieve supply chain transparency and ensure that any ‘ethics gremlins’ are quickly and efficiently dealt with. If Rana Plaza has taught us anything, it is that careful supply chain management is essential to protect a retailer’s reputation and bottom line, as well as provide a safe environment for garment industry workers globally.

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