In 2013, the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh shed light on the deplorable working conditions of the textile industry. For Nayla Ajaltouni, consumer mobilization has an impact on working conditions in developing countries.
What is your definition of a decent job?
A decent job is one that makes fundamental rights for every worker a key issue, regardless of the type of work. It’s a job that allows individuals to take control of their lives by providing living wages that allow them to meet their basic needs for housing, medical care, clothing and access to education, for example.
What can you tell us about working conditions in the textile industry?
What we are seeing is that, while the textile industry has contributed to the emancipation of workers in some countries, the vast majority have simply joined the ranks of the working poor.
The problem stems from the economic model of multinationals in the sector, which is based on low production costs and low wages. The “fast fashion” market that emerged in the late 1990s, typified by the H&M and Zara brands, is the worst example. In Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia and Thailand, this poor-quality fashion means wages that do not allow workers to live decently, excessive working hours of up to 120 hours per week, and the significant use of fixed-term contracts…
The rare instances of raised awareness and increased wages have been the result of major struggles. This is thanks to the work of NGOs and especially the workers themselves, who are far from passive. In Bangladesh, they have been conducting strikes for nearly two years now, despite risks of imprisonment and blacklisting. However, our role as an NGO is crucial in corrupt and failed states.
The collapse of Rana Plaza heightened awareness of this issue. But did it lead to any changes in practices?
Unfortunately, no. Some multinationals carried out exaggerated communication campaigns on their efforts in favour of sustainable development and human rights. But in reality, we have not seen companies like Primark, Auchan, Zara and H&M taking real action to change their economic models. They continue to prioritize disposable fashion.
However, we are seeing their growth being hampered by the craze for second-hand clothing. Public awareness has been raised on the environmental impact of the textile industry. This should help change the rules. However, to accomplish change, citizens must keep up the pressure on brands and legislators.
What initiatives are you taking with the Éthique sur l’étiquette collective?
Our efforts are aimed at supporting workers’ movements in the countries of production. To change practices, we confront multinational companies directly on their abuses and appeal to policymakers to strengthen legislation.
In France, our efforts have resulted in the adoption of the Law on the duty of vigilance of parent companies and contracting companies (Law of 21 February 2017), which requires major French multinationals and those present in France to publish and implement a vigilance plan to prevent the risks of environmental and human rights abuses. This legislation has created hard law in an area in which multinationals preferred only voluntary measures. It also created a precedent: the Netherlands has just adopted similar regulations on child labour and German is considering it as well…
Today, our discussions are focused on developing a binding international treaty on human rights with the UN. We therefore launched the “Rights for People, Rules for Corporations” campaign in January with 150 organizations from 6 European countries. The petition that goes with it has already collected 564,000 signatures. Our goal is not to punish corporations, but rather to require them to become accountable to citizens.
Has the duty of vigilance requirement established by the Law of 21 February 2017 been respected by corporations?
In our report published two years after the law was created, we made a two-fold observation. The first is that certain companies have still not published their vigilance plan, despite the legal obligation. The second is that the plans of other companies (we have analysed nearly 80) are too brief or evasive. I think Auchan published a plan that was only 2 pages long. None of the plans currently represent a true tool for preventing violations of the fundamental rights of workers.
We believe that multinationals still need time to establish their vigilance plans. We are waiting to see what they propose. We also believe that a public body is required to verify and centralise the published plans. It is currently up to citizens and NGOs to look for them on each company’s website.
Where is most urgent for us to act: in the production countries or consumption countries?
Our efforts must be concentrated where the greatest responsibility lies. Simply put, we need to change the economic models of multinationals. Some now have gained greater influence than public authorities.
At the same time, we also need to fight for trade union freedom in production companies to strengthen workers’ bargaining power.
Our primary means of action is citizen mobilization. We therefore document human rights violations and the impacts of economic models adopted by major groups. We promote alternative solutions and create petitions…
On that note, what exactly can citizens do?
We often say that a purchase is a political act. And it’s true! In deciding whether or not to buy something, or choose something different, we influence a brand’s sales. In practice, this means we need to stop looking for the lowest prices. There is no such thing as a €3 T-shirt if we want a product that respects human rights. It also means to stop running after the fast fashion that has been imposed on us. Sustainable thinking.
When we have the means, rather than buying clothing from brands that do not respect human rights, we can opt for ethical and sustainable brands. The more people purchase these items, the lower prices will drop. We can also choose to purchase second-hand clothing. We can also get involved online by signing petitions and using social networks to call on brands to make changes. It may seem a pain, but it really works. Sending emails to legislators or local officials can also have a big impact. These collective efforts are essential in affecting economic and political decisions.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.