In the wake of last month’s Fashion Revolution Week, which remembered the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, we are left with the feeling that not enough has changed to prevent such tragedies happening again.
We must be better at listening and acting on the observations of supply chain workers. If the factory owner, and indeed those brands supplying from the manufacturers within Rana Plaza, had taken a proper response to concerns over building cracks, many if not all lives would have been saved. That is upwards of 3,000 people’s lives.
It’s not just health and safety incidents and risks which can be spotted early through worker voice insight. Recruitment, pay, management and welfare conditions are experienced on a daily basis by those at the receiving end and yet the observations of end-of-the-chain workers are notably missing in supply chain assessments.
Quite often brands are simply unaware of the people risks within their full length operations. The first step is awareness of the issues. In today’s reality of convoluted global supply chains, this means harnessing technology to access the farthest reaches. Going beyond site visits where manager interference can blinker auditors, online worker voice surveys can flag up what is really happening inside the factory or field or warehouse.
Better data is more power for retailers. They can mitigate reputational risk by sourcing their products and goods in line with fair labour standards and benchmark groups of suppliers, even sub contractors. A move towards data-driven decisions also pushes those lagging behind to clean up operations to stay competitive.
Of course, it’s not a one-sided issue; brands are equally culpable of driving down manufacturing costs in low margin, high competition markets, which creates an environment that encourages cutting corners.
A Guardian article this week reports that the cycle of labour abuse continues by moving to other developing countries: “We have watched globalisation’s exploitation stories play out for decades now. There’s money to be made in the desperation of impoverished nations to attract industrial investment; just ask anyone from Melbourne’s old textile factories, or the shipyards in the British north-east, or the auto-parts makers in Ohio, US, who saw their jobs offshored to Asia and Mexico years ago.
“Now, of course, “wage pressure” from Asia’s industrialised working class is tempting manufacturers to relocate to Africa. The American president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, manufactures shoes through a Chinese company based in Ethiopia.”
It’s clear that if we don’t puncture a hole in the well-worn fabric of global manufacturing industries, it will simply re-emerge elsewhere. We must turn the system on its head - from top down to bottom up, data driven approaches, using the tools that are readily available today.
If technology can be used to train factory workers and improve customer service then surely it should be used to improve the lives of our supply chain labourers?