EU aims for global standards against slave labour and exploitation

Textile workers earn on average €0.13 for a t-shirt sold in Germany for €4.95, said Jörg Asmussen, state secretary in the German Labour Ministry. [Asian Development Bank/Flickr]

T-shirts for €4.95 and bananas at €1 per kilo – such prices often disguise unsafe working conditions and labor exploitation, inspiring EU Development Commissioner Mimica, and the German government, to push for an end such abuses. EURACTIV Germany reports.

More than 1,000 workers died and almost 2,500 were injured in the worst factory disaster in Bangladeshi history. 24 April will mark the two year anniversary of the collapse of the textile factory Rana Plaza in the city of Sabhar.

With cases like these in mind, the EU has declared promoting “good work worldwide” to be one of its most important goals in the European Year of Development.

“We must end 19th century style slave labour and exploitation worldwide,” said Thomas Oppermann, the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) chairman in the Bundestag.

He spoke during a discussion on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on Thursday (26 March) in Berlin.

TTIP to help establish Europe-wide labour standards

The EU’s Development Commissioner Neven Mimica emphasised that the European Year of Development should serve as an impetus for politicians to create a legislative framework that promotes fair conditions in the private sector.

“European companies play a key role in making the world a fairer place and achieving humane working conditions along supply chains,” Mimica said.

MEP Arne Lietz (SPD), indicated that a Europe-wide design for laws and standards is unavoidable. The planned free trade agreements serve as a significant opportunity to push toward this goal in an exemplary manner, he said.

“Several MEPs are already working on including uniform labour standards in TTIP,” Lietz commented.

13-cent-wage for workers sewing a €4.95 t-shirt

Half of the world’s wealth is currently in the hands of 1% of the population. This 1% primarily buys cheap goods that are produced in developing and newly industrialised countries, often manufactured under inhumane working conditions.

A striking example was provided by Jörg Asmussen, state secretary in the German Labour Ministry. He said a t-shirt produced in Bangladesh and bought in Germany for €4.95 includes, on average, 40 cents for the cotton material, 6 cents for transport, €2.50 for trade and taxes in Germany and 13 cents in wages for the seamstresses.

On the other hand, for a shirt that costs €40 in Germany, the wage for factory seamstresses only jumps to 25 cents, Asmussen pointed out.

He said that fair wages worldwide, and a minimum standard for occupational safety and social security, are at the top of the agenda for Germany’s G7 presidency this year.

The German Labour Ministry is currently preparing corresponding measures in cooperation with the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)

Concrete measures on occupational safety

Plans include special funds to build and support sustainable structures locally that promote occupational safety. The Labour Ministry also hopes to develop uniform guidelines to ensure socially responsible supply chains. This is also meant to make it easier for mid-sized businesses to meet standards.

Another goal is the creation of a complaint mechanism, creating national contact points for employees in the manufacturing countries. If employers or trade businesses violate existing laws, the provision is meant to simplify the process of initiating an international complaints procedure.

Responsibility should not end with the consumer

The initiative demonstrates the position held by Germany and the EU that the responsibility for fair consumption is not only held by the consumer. Repeated demands to this effect are completely absurd, according to Oxfam’s Frank Braßel.

In the construction and farming sectors, in particular, occupational safety is often hardly existent, he said. “But making production and trade more safe cannot be the responsibility of the consumer. It must be initiated by businesses and politicians,” Braßel argued.

In this context, he also criticised the decreasing influence of labour unions worldwide, despite their importance in combating inequality.

An IMF study recently shed light on the negative consequences for the distribution of wealth caused by the decline of unions.

“The duty of diligence among businesses and the consequences for violations must be more clearly defined,” said SPD development analyst Bärbel Kofler.

At the UN’s conference on development financing scheduled for July, in Addis Ababa, discussion topics should also include tax violations and fair taxation, Kofler indicated.

Development Commissioner Mimica admitted there has been a lack of platforms for fair and transparent taxation in the past. As a result, the Croatian politician said, the European Year of Development should be about tackling an almost countless number of issues, a task that will demand a collective effort.

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.

>>Read: EU plans bid to raise global rag trade working conditions

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