(Berlin) – German apparel and footwear brands should promote workers’ rights in their global operations by publicly disclosing the factories producing their products. Supply chain transparency through public disclosure would demonstrate a brand’s commitment to ensuring good working conditions for workers throughout their operations.
“German clothing brands should promote respect for worker rights and safety by making their global supply chains transparent,” said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch. “Adidas, a leading German brand, has been publicly disclosing its supplier list since 2007 – demonstrating that transparency is both possible and desirable.”
In a recent report, “‘Work Faster or Get Out’: Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry,” Human Rights Watch documented lax Cambodian government enforcement of labor laws and the need for apparel brands to improve their monitoring and compliance. For the report, Human Rights Watch examined labor practices in factories producing products for Adidas, Armani, Gap, H&M, Joe Fresh, and Marks and Spencer, among others.
Many factories in Cambodia repeatedly issued short-term contracts beyond the two-year limit to avoid paying workers maternity and other benefits, and to intimidate and control them. Workers on short-term contracts who tried to form unions or assert their rights were especially at risk of not having their contracts renewed. Many apparel brands have not taken adequate steps to end this illegal use of short-term contracts in their Cambodian supplier factories – even where their supplier codes of conduct have clauses limiting their use.
By publicly disclosing and updating the names of suppliers, the garment brands enable public scrutiny of their supply chains, which in turn will help alert brands to poor working conditions and other human rights problems in their supplier factories, Human Rights Watch said. Such transparency also allows brings to light the factories are authorized – and not authorized – to produce clothes for a particular brand. Brands’ suppliers sometimes subcontract their work to other factories that subject workers to dangerous or abusive conditions without authorization and without the brands’ knowledge. Supply chain transparency helps monitoring groups alert brands to these situations so they can be addressed.
The lack of transparency was evident following the collapse on April 24, 2013, of the Rana Plaza complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed a number of garment factories, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring thousands more. Unions and labor rights groups gathered brand labels of the clothes produced in the destroyed factories from the rubble, and demanded that those brands contribute to the compensation fund for the victims and support broader reform measures. However, brands’ lack of supply chain transparency was a key reason why the problems at Rana Plaza were not addressed before the point of catastrophe.
Unions and labor rights advocates have alleged that a major German clothing brand, KiK, had production in factories in Rana Plaza. KiK stated in a press release on April 2, 2014, that the company had “no direct business relation at the point of the accident” and, in a letter to Human Rights Watch, said that it had contributed to the compensation fund. Workers have also alleged that KiK had production in the Tazreen, a Bangladesh factory that caught fire in November 2012, killing 117 workers. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, in December 2012 KiK acknowledged having produced garments in Tazreen, and on April 2013, KiK joined with a number of other brands in pledging to pay funds into a compensation fund for victims of the Tazreen fire. The families of victims of a factory fire that killed 262 persons at the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi, Pakistan, in September 2012 have brought a lawsuit against KiK in German courts alleging that the company’s garments were being produced in the factory at the time, and seeking compensation.
Garment brands should recognize that ensuring transparency in supply chains makes it possible for unions and labor rights advocates to warn about unsafe conditions and possible problems at factories where products are being made. Brands should also take a host of other measures to improve labor rights and safety in supplier factories, including curbing the use of short-term contracts, taking effective steps to prevent physical and sexual abuses, and clamping down on anti-union practices. Many brands have codes of conduct that prohibit abuses of labor and human rights in supplier factories but fail to effectively monitor and ensure those codes are fully complied with.
Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility “to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” The UN guidelines also state that “where business enterprises identify that they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts, they should provide for or cooperate in their remediation through legitimate processes.”
“German clothing brands should be leading the way globally in demanding their suppliers respect workers’ rights and that factory environments meet international standards for safety,” Michalski said. “For their part, German shoppers should demand that brands make it clear where products are made and under what conditions so they can make fully informed consumer decisions.”