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Hope for Garment Workers with European Parliament’s Vote

“Europeans should not wear clothes made by exploiting garment workers,” Lola Sanchez Caldentey, a member of the European Parliament, boldly declared yesterday. She was speaking at an event commemorating the victims of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, when the eight-story building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 garment workers. 

As the rapporteur of the European Parliament’s Committee on Development, Sanchez has spearheaded a new report on the EU flagship initiative on the garment sector. Today, the European Parliament voted to accept the report and its recommendations.

Among other things, the report asks the European Commission to “present a legislative proposal on binding due diligence obligations for supply chains in the garment sector.” This means that apparel companies could be legally obligated to take effective steps to identify, prevent, and remedy human rights abuses against the workers in factories around the world who produce their goods.

It was a bittersweet moment for Aminul Haque, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, a leading group of unions in Bangladesh. He, along with other Bangladesh unions and local nongovernmental organizations, have endured the pain and grief of losing colleagues in the Rana Plaza tragedy and watching those injured and traumatized struggle to cope. Many of the Rana Plaza workers, who were part of the supply chain to global brands, were not able to exercise their right to organize and press for their protections.

After the disaster, labor rights activists have pieced together some relief for workers by cooperating on binding initiatives like the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Haque recalled how he was in Brussels more than a decade ago cautioning that voluntary programs by apparel companies were simply not good enough.

The European Commission has its work cut out in the coming months. As it works to draft the binding legislation, it should remember that a key pillar of corporate accountability is transparency. In a recent open letter, Human Rights Watch and 78 other labor and human rights organizations urged the commission to ensure that publishing supply chain information becomes integral to any such legislative proposal.

Some companies are already ahead of the curve. As part a civil society campaign, Human Rights Watch documented that at least 29 major apparel brands have published information about their supply chain factory names, locations, and other important information. While this is a growing industry trend, far too many European companies have yet to sign up.

Today’s vote was a crucial step toward binding legislation that will protect garment workers’ human rights.

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