Written by Enrico D’Ambrogio
More than 70% of EU imports of textile and clothing come from Asia. Many Asian workers have to work in sweatshop conditions, but the issue appears in global media only when major fatal accidents occur, like that at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, in 2013.
Long working hours, low wages, lack of regular contracts, and systemically hazardous conditions are often reported. Trade unions, when allowed, are unable to protect workers.
Not all Asian countries exporting textile and clothing to the EU have ratified “Fundamental” ILO conventions and their concrete application is far from the norm. UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises fix good standards of corporate social responsibility for Western brands operating in such countries, but are not binding and do not provide for sanctions if not applied. In practice, they have failed to defend workers’ rights.
A number of measures have been suggested to change this situation, including in repeated European Parliament resolutions. Such measures would require action by Asian governments, international brands and the importing countries. They include greater union rights, more regular work, brands doing more due diligence when dealing with contractors, efficient and more cooperative audits, more stable purchasing practices, making some guidelines and principles legally binding, and putting pressure on Asian authorities to have workers’ human rights better respected.