A year after the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed 1,135 people in Bangladesh, the European Commission is mulling a new initiative to boost labour standards for global companies that supply Europe’s high streets, as a flagship for Europe’s Year of Development, which begins in 2015.
“We want to see with the private sector how we could improve their performance, how we can make them come to the table and show their responsibility,” Klaus Rudischhauser, the deputy director general for the Commission’s Development directorate told a conference in Brussels yesterday (19 June).
“We have been thinking of introducing a label for textiles that you buy in the shops every day, where you could see on the label that the company has applied principles of social and environmental standards,” he said.
The initiative could be a “flagship” of the 2015 European Year of Development, Rudischhauser suggested.
Other Commission officials contacted by EURACTIV clarified that the idea was still at an early stage, but is under serious discussion with a meeting planned today (20 June), before inter-service consultations begin.
Options under consideration include a label, a code of conduct, or a written agreement, according to senior Commission sources. “We may later consider other industries – such as fisheries and the extractive sector – but we would like to start with the garment industry and make it efficient and visible to EU citizens,” one said.
Officials said that ensuring confidence and trust in the information provided would be crucial, as the Commission does not have resources to mount its own inspections, accreditation or monitoring of garment factories, and past attempts at enforcing standards had been abused.
“[Certified] labels were found in the [Rana Plaza] building in Dhaka after the fire, from companies that were pretending they were doing ethical trade so what does ‘ethical’ mean in that sense?” one official told EURACTIV. “Labels do not always work.”
Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International agreed, noting that effective legislation, inspection and enforcement in target countries was crucial to the success of such schemes. He still welcomed news of the proposed initiative.
“It is important that eradication of forced labour should be a central consideration of development policy so if the European Commission is considering coordinated and concerted action, that’s definitely a positive move,” he told EURACTIV.
McQuade flagged up measures to help countries like Bangladesh and Thailand improve court systems and labour inspections as two areas where the EU could make a difference by spreading best practice and thinking.
“This is a good idea in principle but the devil is always in the details,” he said.
Within the Commission too, some fear that stringent obligations on garment producers, buyers and importers could spark internal opposition from the EU’s trade directorate, even though the spokesman for its commissioner Karel de Gucht recently noted ongoing “serious shortcomings” in the safety and labour rights of Bangladeshi garment workers.
Issues still to be decided by the plan’s authors include whether measures should be targeted on clothes or textiles, a broad area which includes, for example cotton production. Another thorny issue is how to protect the environmental working conditions in the jeans-manufacture trade, where toxins and chemicals are used.
The question of how to address countries where senior government officials have substantial shareholdings in the garment industry also remains to be thrashed out.
For now, the focus is on trying to establish the details of any proposal, where pilot schemes work best, and even which developing world countries are the biggest producers of garments bought in European high streets.
“If Zara and H&M buy from Bangladesh that is fine,” an official said, “but if the clothes all come from China that would be a little different because we are too small for that.”
“How can you negotiate label conditions in China?” the official asked.
The April 2013 collapse of several garment factories in Bangladesh was the third deadly incident in six months to raise questions about worker safety and labour conditions in the poor South Asian country, which relies on garments for 80% of its exports.
In the year to June 2012, Bangladesh's garment exports to the EU rose to €8.6 billion from €8 billion a year earlier, according to Bangladesh's commerce ministry. Germany is the main EU market, followed by the UK, Spain and France.
Bangladesh's next biggest garment export market is the United States.