Keep sourcing but watch ethics

4 January 2007
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04 January 2007 | Antony Barton

A workers' rights organisation is urging retailers to keep their contracts with suppliers in low-cost sourcing countries, despite publishing a report on poor working conditions in some factories.

War on Want said it did not want the retailers mentioned in its Fashion Victims report to pull out of these countries in a bid to save their reputations. The director of campaigns and policy for the organisation, John Hilary, told SM: "It's crucial that the firms stay in Bangladesh and these people keep their jobs. But they need decent working conditions."

The report, published in December, says workers in some Bangladeshi factories are paid just 5p an hour to make clothing for Tesco, Primark and Asda and that the starting salaries in some of the factories are barely a third of a living wage. It also claims that some workers are forced to do up to 140 hours a month overtime, often unpaid, or face dismissal.

The three chains denied that workers manufactured their clothing in poor conditions. All are signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative's (ETI) code of labour practice, which aims to ensure the working conditions of employees producing goods for the UK market meet or exceed international labour standards.

ETI director Dan Rees told SM the organisation has advised its member firms to investigate the claims promptly. "Bangladesh is increasingly vulnerable to competition from countries such as China and India," he said. "Up to 15 million people in the country rely on the garment sector as a source of income. It is vital that brands stay in Bangladesh."

The three chains have asked War on Want to reveal the names of the factories visited and workers interviewed for the report, so action can be taken. But the organisation told SM it would not disclose this information in case employees lost their jobs. It was also a condition of the interviews that neither the names of the factories nor the employees would be revealed. The stores insist they conduct factory audits to ensure workers aren't exploited.

Sixty-one per cent of buyers in the SM 100 said it was possible for firms to protect themselves from claims that they failed to uphold standards in low-cost country sourcing.

Gary Moore, strategic procurement manager at Bournemouth Borough Council, said: "All risks can be managed if they are considered high enough priorities and the firm is willing to throw in a proportionate amount of investment in time and cost."

Paul Murphy, procurement manager, Independent Police Complaints Commission, disagreed the risk could be managed, "due to the common practice of [suppliers] holding two sets of books. One real and one for inspection."

Paul Hooft, procurement manager at Jabil Global Services, said: "The only protection [for buyers] is to be able to prove that you did everything that could be reasonably expected of you."

• War on Want is a UK-based workers' rights organisation that has fought poverty in developing countries since 1951. Its campaigns include one against Coca-Cola's involvement in India, where the firm has been accused of depleting water resources in local communities to feed its bottling plants.

See ethical buying feature


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