When words are not enough

July 31, 2013

Peter McAllister, Executive Director of the Ethical Trading Initiative, says that the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh challenges businesses to turn human rights principles into concrete actions.

Like many of you reading this, I struggled to find the right words following news of the Rana Plaza collapse in late April. It was difficult to fully convey the horror and anger at this truly tragic loss of human life. Even worse was that workers had tried to uphold their right to not work in an unsafe building, but did not feel confident to resist the demands of management, revealing the sickening fact that this could have been avoided.

Around the world, the questions started rushing in. Who was responsible for this? Should brands be blamed, because of negligence in their auditing practices? What about the local industry – why did it take so long for cracks in the multi-storey complex to be noticed?  Or surely we can blame the factory managers, who forced workers back in to complete unfinished orders? What about the Bangladesh government, and lack of respect for building codes? How should we react as consumers? These questions rang loud in everyone’s ears.

Bangladesh is still a young and poor country without the mature political, social and economic structures that we are familiar with, all of which played a part in creating the conditions for the Rana Plaza disaster. We know that Western brands have long been benefitting from the combination of local skills, flexibility, capacity and cheap costs offered by Bangladesh’s garment and textile industry.  However, it is also important to recognise that by providing employment to some four million people, most of whom are women, the sector has a significant positive effect which needs to be built on.

I can’t do justice to unpicking these complex issues here, and while tempting and easy to point fingers, a thoughtful analysis is more likely to help us take the right steps to supporting meaningful improvement. The answer to the responsibility question is both easy and challenging at the same time – we all share at least part of the responsibility for the conditions that allowed the Rana Plaza disaster to happen.

This concept of shared responsibility sits at the very heart of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. For those not yet familiar with these, the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework and detailed guiding principles set out new responsibilities for businesses in terms of their impact on human rights in business supply chains, and how these rights should be upheld. They also set out a clear role for states to provide the right legislative and regulatory framework to support this.

So are we seeing shared responsibility in the international response to the Rana Plaza disaster? The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a welcome, significant step for businesses in terms of acknowledging their responsibilities for human rights; in this case upholding the most basic right to a safe place of work. The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) was able to play a key role in championing the Accord’s development and garnering support from many of our members. It’s unprecedented that more than 60 global brands have committed to such a landmark agreement. The implementation plan sets out clear actions for brands in terms of safety inspections at factories and remediation work where needed, amongst other things.

One of the Accord’s key components is explicit support for the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety for the RMG Sector in Bangladesh, developed by the Bangladeshi government, local industry and labour representatives with guidance from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Recognising the mutual responsibilities, it is vitally important that the leadership shown by local parties is supported and enhanced, rather than supplanted by the international Accord. Only this way will there be transformative and sustainable change for Bangladesh’s garment sector workers, local industry and the wider community.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide an excellent lens through which to view the response to Bangladesh’s chronic health and safety issues. There is clearly an area of action around the state’s duty to protect, the duty of business (both local and international) to respect workers’ rights, and the very real need for remedy.

But are the framework and principles gaining enough traction yet to effect any real change in how we look at issues and avert, rather than respond to, future disasters? An obvious point perhaps, but chronic labour rights issues are not confined to Bangladesh and the developing world. We have plenty to deal with right here on our doorstep, including the increase of precarious work across sectors such as construction and tourism.

It’s encouraging to see that some large companies have embraced the guiding principles, as have multi-lateral political entities such as the European Commission. The UK government has promised its own strategy on business and human rights by the end of this year, which will make it one of the first state adopters.  The truth is, we’ve enjoyed a honeymoon period of getting to know the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We have had panel discussions, webinars and blogs, and the debate has been good and truly interesting.  Now it’s time for businesses and governments alike to step up to the challenge at hand and turn these good words into actions.

Peter McAllister is Executive Director of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

This article has been adapted from a piece previously published on Business Fights Poverty.