German fair textile initiative seeks international alliance

Today (24 April) marks the second anniversary of the collapse of the textile factory in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. [rijans/Flickr]

Almost two years since the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh, German textile associations agreed on membership requirements for the government’s proposed textile alliance, while apparel manufacturing giants still reject the project. EURACTIV Germany reports.

At the head of the textile alliance, the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and representatives from textile companies have put the alliance’s action plan in concrete terms.

On Tuesday (21 April), the group created conditions for membership, allowing more companies to join the network.

The textile alliance was founded in October 2014, at the initiative of Development Minister Gerd Müller, and includes representatives from civil society, unions and the government. Its self-proclaimed goal is to improve living and environmental conditions for workers in countries where manufacturing takes place. Currently around 70 organisations belong to the group.

In the interest of incorporating as many medium-sized companies as possible, the partners have made the action plan more precise on certain points. These changes particularly affect the way the alliance members must work towards mandatory targets and how progress can be verified in a transparent fashion.

In the future, “the continual pursuit of goals […] shall be guaranteed by a regular review process through independent third parties”, the revisions say.

A “mid-sized sector clause” has also been added. The measure indicates that alliance members agree that “the targets cannot be fulfilled by all partners to the same degree and until the same deadline”. Here, the provision is designed to make it easier for small and medium-sized companies to join the alliance.

>> Read: German manufacturers bail on sustainable textile alliance

In addition, the textile alliance indicates its commitment to “pursuing connections to European and international initiatives and institutions to create equal competition conditions and widespread membership in the alliance, beyond national borders”.

Associations in the textile industry also told the alliance that they would recommend membership to their own members.

“A unified spirit among associations is a precondition for large-scale participation from the economy,” emphasised Josef Sanktjohanser, president of the German Retail Association (HDE).

“The alliance will only be able to make a difference in manufacturing countries if all the actors join together,” he said.

As a result, the economy cannot take over any of the state’s or social partner’s statutory tasks, he argued. It is necessary for the textile alliance to maintain a consistent international orientation to avoid disadvantages for German businesses in international competition, Sanktjohanser stated.

“Today, the textile alliance has taken a decisive step forward,” said Müller. “Already, many of our partners, in Europe and internationally, are taking an interest in our textile alliance. It can become a real trademark toward establishing social and ecological standards in the textile industry.”

Fair prices

“Of course we welcome the fact that now the textile industry’s associations also want to join,” said Franziska Humbert, labour rights analyst at Oxfam Germany.

“But to this day, big fashion companies are still refusing to join. It will only be possible to overcome the significant challenges in the supply chain with their participation,” Humbert argued.

This includes payment of fair prices and appropriate delivery times for suppliers, she said, to allow for fair working conditions in factories.

“To improve working conditions in textile factories in the long-term, we need legal regulations,” Humbert pointed out.

Together with participants from the economy and civil society, the German government is currently assembling an action plan to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Its main task will be legally obliging businesses to ensure observance of human rights within their own supply chain.

MEP Arne Lietz, who hails from Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), said he welcomes the initiative from Berlin, especially in light of the fact that the European Commission is also preparing to launch a textile alliance of its own.

“I see Germany as a positive example in this regard and am certain that we will be able to push this initiative through at the European level,” Lietz explained. “This breakthrough by the BMZ and the textile associations is an important milestone toward achieving better working conditions in manufacturing countries.”

During its plenary session next week, the European Parliament is expected to pass a resolution responding to the collapse of the factory in Rana Plaza and indicating labour conditions in the global textile sector.

The resolution is meant to check the implementation of the Sustainability Compact by the European Commission. There, MEPs call for strict compliance with the financing pledge in particular.

In response to the 2013 tragedies in Bangladesh, EU Trade Commissioner De Gucht launched the Global Sustainability Compact.

The pact includes concrete obligations for the protection of worker’s rights, particularly the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining as well as better and safer places of work and promotion of responsible business practices.

The EU textile and clothing sector is an SMEs-based industry, as companies of less of 50 employees account for more than 90% of the workforce, and produce almost 60% of the value added.

In the EU-28, the biggest producers in T&C industry are the 5 most populated countries, i.e. Italy, France, UK and Germany, Spain accounting for about three quarters of the union's production of textiles and clothing.

Southern member states, such as Italy, Greece and Portugal, some of the newer members, such as Romania and Poland, and to a lesser extent Spain and France, contribute more to total clothing production.

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