Human rights

Garment industry: Luxembourg has opportunity to make difference

Garment workers in the global south have little social protection and work for suppliers that are often exploited by big international brands pixelfusion3d

Garment workers in the global south have little social protection and work for suppliers that are often exploited by big international brands pixelfusion3d

A conference this week has allowed experts from academia, civil society and business to provide insights into the human rights challenges that exist in the garment industry.

Following the money trail in the garment industry highlights that “Luxembourg is a host of investors, banks and funds organizations who provide the necessary financial means, which allow companies and factories in the global south to upkeep those industries where potential human rights violations take place,” says professor Katalin Ligeti, dean of the faculty of law, economics and finance at the University of Luxembourg. Speaking at a two-day conference titled Tainted Clothes: human rights violations in the garment industry, Ligeti explained, however, that the due diligence law on which Luxembourg is currently working could ensure that money flows to these countries are controlled. “Given this unique position of Luxembourg, as a financial hub, we have the opportunity to make a difference, and even as a small country to make a big difference,” she said.

Caritas Luxembourg, an organiser of the conference together with the Uni.lu faculty of law, economics and finance, has been engaged in raising awareness and campaigning against human rights violations in the industry. Its Rethink your clothes campaign advocates for better rights and social protection of garment industry workers in the supply chains in the global south.

Social protection

Those problems were exacerbated by the covid pandemic, said Alison Tate, director of economic and social policy of the International Trade Union Confederation. She highlighted the need to ensure social protection as a fundamental right in line with article 22 of the universal declaration of Human Rights.

Tate explained how, mostly female, factory workers in Bangladesh, for example, were given just a few days’ notice to go home to their villages, as factories were closing for an indefinite period because of covid lockdown restrictions. The problem is that the factories only paid employees for the last days they worked, and many of families that were depending on the salary of these workers, were forced into poverty.

The financing gaps are too large for them to fill
Alison Tate

Alison Tatedirector of economic and social policy International Trade Union Confederation

Less than half of the world’s workers have some sort of access to any sort of social protection, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that 60% of the global workforce is in the informal economy. “Social protection is a precondition for building resilience against this covid crisis and against future crises, whether that be economic crises, health crises, or climate crisis,” Tate argued. She explained that the commitment to extend social protection is required to meet the Sustainable Development Goals included in the United Nations’ Agenda 2030. “However, when we talk about financial commitments to underpin establishing or extending social protection, both at national level and at the international level for the world's poorest countries, it is clear that the financing gaps are too large for them to fill.” Trade unions, Tate argues, can play a key role in ensuring “that effective, accountable and transparent social protection systems are in place at national level, that social protection provisions are included and supported by the collective bargaining system and that trade unions campaign, along with other allies, ensure that both social protection is effective, and is efficiently, financed.”

Pressure from big brands

Jorge Conesa, policy manager at the Fair Trade Advocacy Office argued that the human rights violations in the textile industry are a systemic problem and that companies trying to do go against the stream have a hard time doing business. The ILO states that international brands force 50% of garment suppliers to accept orders at below market price, are late with payments, set unattainable timelines for completion or cancel orders before their completion if they are no longer profitable. These unfair trading practices aggravate labour abuses in the supply chain. Conesa has identified a causality between world’s poorest workers, working the longest hours, having no social protection, and the high supply of textiles produced. He highlighted the need for universal action, encompassing all the companies and the whole supply chain. “I think that it is essential that the companies report on the way in which their own purchasing practices hamper or enable the respect of human rights,” he said.

A 2017 European Parliament resolution addressed these issues, but despite many subsequent national projects being introduced across member states, the European Union’s sustainable textile strategy never really materialised. The European Commission is currently working on taking action and says it will adopt an EU Textile Strategy within the framework of the Circular Economy Action Plan before the end of this year.

The independent republic of the supply chain

Auret van Heerden, founder and CEO at Equiception, said that even if countries have social protection laws, institutionalized systems of evading labour law prevail, and this trend has been registered all around the world. He calls this phenomenon the independent republic of the supply chain, which is impossible to regulate as long as governments do not act together to ensure minimum standards of social protection and minimum wages. Moreover, brands are constantly seeking to reduce labour costs and since 2015 have started to move to Africa, as many Asian countries, including China, adopted labour contract laws.

Van Heerden argued that in Ethiopia, where the government gave a blank check to these companies as they had no experience managing foreign investors, they recruited workers at what equates to $26 a month (working six days a week), a wage low that the industry garment has not seen in a long time. Intrigued to comprehend how workers agreed to such low wages, van Heerden interviewed them, and found that the young women in the factories were sponsored by their families, who were helping them so that they can work and gain experience. The young women, seeing that the industry holds no future, created savings associations to pay for night school and weekend schools so that they can move to another sector and improve their social condition.

I imagine that we will see a much angrier group of consumers, demanding accountability from companies.
Auret van Heerden

Auret van Heerdenfounder and CEOEquiception

Van Heerden cites the activism and international solidarity that made the world aware of the horrors of the apartheid in his home country, South Africa. “This dis-investment can be a very, very, powerful tool in terms of mobilizing and putting pressure on companies to change their business practices”. He hopes that, as in the case of climate change, consumers will ask who's responsible. “So, I imagine that we will see a much angrier group of consumers, demanding accountability from companies. This comes at a time when we are moving into an era of mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence, so I can imagine that as soon as those laws actually come into effect in 2023, even though they don't have civil liability built into them, there are compliants mechanisms, and we will see, civil society, test those compliants mechanisms with complaints about living wage, forced labour, and child labour.”

Initiatives in Luxembourg

Marc Crochet, CEO at Caritas Luxembourg said that online retail is aggravating the problem. He tested online shopping and found that a pair of cheap jeans made in Pakistan, where atrocious blue-collar and child labour conditions have been reported. Only between 1% and 3% of the retail price of €11.98 (VAT included) goes to the supplier. Since 2018, Caritas Luxembourg and its partners Fair Trade Luxembourg and the ministry of foreign affairs directorate for cooperation and development have been running the Rethink your clothes public awareness campaign, aimed at turning fast fashion consumers into fair fashion consumers, and calling on everyone to be more mindful and sustainable in their clothing choices.

Caritas in cooperation in collaboration with the ministry of justice, recently developed an online training guide on decent work aimed at high school students in Luxembourg which can be.

“We encourage to swap, to mend, to give away, to recycle, to upcycle or simply buy fewer items of clothing. If the world’s garment production would stop right now today, there would anyway be enough clothes for six generations to come,” Crochet said. “We are also calling on decision makers in Luxembourg and Europe to move forward with legislation on due diligence for responsible supply chains in the garment sector, all with the ultimate goal to improve social, protection in the workplace, and to eliminate forced labour from global value chains in the textile industry.”

Minister of justice Sam Tanson added that the number of victims modern slavery, with all its forms and faces, is skyrocketing. “Since the breakout of the pandemic, this phenomenon has become even more visible, and Luxembourg has not been spared,” Tanson said. The minister claimed that progress has been made in a number of areas such as the legal framework, combating human trafficking, training and raising awareness. “However, there are certain areas which require improvement,” she admitted. “We need to take additional measures and I look forward to discussing those next weeks with the Council of Europe's Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. We face increasing numbers of victims and cases every year, especially when it comes to forced labour or labour under particularly abusive conditions.”