Compliance Sheba

Human rights due diligence: a key step towards the ethical apparel industry

Sheikh H M Mustafiz, Managing Director, Cute Dress Industry Ltd.

The apparel industry is one of the largest and most important industries in the world, providing employment for millions of people and contributing significantly to the global economy. However, despite its importance, the industry has long been plagued by reports of human rights abuses, from low wages and long working hours to unsafe working conditions and child labor. As consumers become more aware of these issues, they are demanding more accountability from companies, and as a result, the concept of human rights due diligence has emerged as a crucial step toward creating a more ethical and sustainable apparel industry.

What is human rights due diligence?

Human rights due diligence is a process by which companies identify, prevent, mitigate and account for the potential and actual adverse human rights impacts of their operations, and take appropriate action to address them.

The aim is to ensure that a company’s business practices do not violate human rights and that they contribute to the protection and respect of human rights in the communities where they operate. In the apparel industry, this means taking a comprehensive and systematic approach to identifying and addressing the risks of human rights abuses in the supply chain, from the sourcing of raw materials to the manufacturing and distribution of finished products.

Why is human rights due diligence important?

Human rights due diligence is important for several reasons. Firstly, it is a legal requirement in many countries, including the European Union, where the EU Directive on Non-Financial Reporting requires companies to report on their human rights due diligence processes.

Secondly, it is becoming increasingly important for companies to address human rights risks in order to maintain their social license to operate. Consumers and investors are becoming more aware of the human rights impacts of business operations, and are demanding greater accountability from companies.

Thirdly, addressing human rights risks can help to prevent negative impacts on workers, communities and the environment, and can lead to improved business performance and reputation.

How can apparel industry owners implement human rights due diligence?

Figure 1: Ways to implement human rights due diligence in the apparel industry.

Implementing human rights due diligence in the apparel industry requires a systematic approach that involves all levels of the supply chain. Here are some key steps that apparel industry owners can take to implement human rights due diligence:

  1. Conduct a human rights risk assessment: The first step in human rights due diligence is to identify the potential risks of human rights abuses in the supply chain. This can be done through a comprehensive risk assessment that takes into account the different stages of the supply chain, as well as the local context and the specific risks facing different groups of workers.
  2. Develop a human rights policy: Once the risks have been identified, apparel industry owners can develop a human rights policy that sets out their commitment to respect human rights and outlines the steps they will take to address any adverse human rights impacts.
  3. Engage with suppliers: Engaging with suppliers is crucial to implementing human rights due diligence in the apparel industry. Apparel industry owners can work with suppliers to assess and address human rights risks, provide training and capacity-building to suppliers, and ensure that suppliers are aware of the company’s human rights policy.
  4. Monitor and evaluate: Human rights due diligence is an ongoing process, and apparel industry owners should monitor and evaluate their human rights performance on an ongoing basis. This can be done through regular audits, stakeholder engagement, and reporting on human rights performance.
  5. Collaborate and share best practices: Finally, apparel industry owners can collaborate with other companies, civil society organizations, and government agencies to share best practices and promote the implementation of human rights due diligence across the industry.

Human rights situation of Bangladesh RMG industries

The Bangladesh apparel industry has come a long way in recent years, becoming one of the safest and greenest apparel industries in the world. Employing around 4 million people, the industry is a vital source of economic growth for the country, accounting for more than 83% of its export earnings. In recent years, the industry has made significant strides in improving working conditions and raising wages for workers. This has been achieved through initiatives such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement between apparel brands, trade unions, and the Bangladesh government.

While challenges still remain, the industry has made remarkable progress in ensuring the safety and well-being of its workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a significant challenge for the industry, but measures have been taken to protect workers from the virus and support those who have been affected. In addition, the industry has continued to invest in sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, positioning itself as a leader in ethical and responsible manufacturing.

Figure 2: Bangladesh apparel industry has come a long way in recent years, becoming one of the safest and greenest apparel industries in the world.

Looking ahead, it is important for all stakeholders in the Bangladesh apparel industry to continue working together to address the remaining challenges facing the industry. This includes ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions for all workers, as well as maintaining a focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility. With a continued commitment to progress and collaboration, the Bangladesh apparel industry has the potential to serve as a model for ethical and responsible manufacturing practices around the world.

The importance of ‘shared responsibility’ from brands

In recent years, there has been growing recognition that businesses have a shared responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations and supply chains. This has been particularly true in the context of the apparel industry, where concerns have been raised about the working conditions and human rights abuses faced by workers in factories around the world.

Figure 3: In the context of the apparel industry, shared responsibility with brands has been growing recognition to mitigate human rights issues throughout their operations and supply chains.

One of the key ways in which brands can fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights is by ensuring that they engage in human rights due diligence in their purchasing practices. While there are many challenges associated with implementing human rights due diligence in the apparel industry, there is a growing recognition that it is a crucial element of responsible business conduct. Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Protects workers’ rights: Human rights due diligence helps to ensure that workers’ rights are respected throughout the supply chain. By identifying and addressing human rights abuses, brands can help to create safer and more equitable working conditions for the people who make their products.
  2. Mitigates legal and reputational risks: Brands that fail to engage in human rights due diligence face significant legal and reputational risks. In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases where brands have been sued for their complicity in human rights abuses in their supply chains. Engaging in human rights due diligence can help to mitigate these risks and protect a brand’s reputation.
  3. Encourages responsible business conduct: By engaging in human rights due diligence, brands can set an example for other businesses and encourage responsible business conduct more broadly. This can help to create a more sustainable and ethical apparel industry overall.
  4. Supports the achievement of the SDGs: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for businesses to respect human rights throughout their operations and supply chains. By engaging in human rights due diligence, brands can contribute to the achievement of these goals, which include the eradication of poverty and the promotion of sustainable economic growth.

While the apparel industry has made some progress in implementing human rights due diligence, there is still a long way to go. Brands must continue to work together with suppliers, civil society organizations, and government authorities to identify and address human rights abuses in the industry. This will require increased transparency, stronger regulations, and a greater commitment to responsible business conduct.

It is also important to note that implementing human rights due diligence in the apparel industry may require additional costs, such as investing in supplier monitoring and remediation programs. In order to ensure that these costs are covered, brands may need to consider increasing the price of their products. This may be particularly true in the context of commodity inflation, global crises, pandemic, war situations, or other external factors that increase the costs of production.

While increasing product prices may not be popular with consumers, but it is important to recognize that this is a necessary step in order to ensure that workers’ rights are respected and protected throughout the supply chain. Brands have an equal responsibility to ensure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses, and this includes paying suppliers a fair price that allows them to meet their own human rights obligations.

Ultimately, it is up to brands to strike a balance between remaining competitive in the market and fulfilling their responsibility to respect human rights and support the achievement of the SDGs. This may require difficult decisions and trade-offs, but it is essential for the long-term sustainability and ethicality of the apparel industry. By taking action now, brands can help to create a more just and equitable global economy for all.

The points for improvement

There are several points of improvement that could be made in order to address the human rights challenges facing the Bangladesh apparel industry. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Improve working conditions: Despite of many green factories in Bangladesh, there is a need for greater investment in infrastructure, such as ventilation and lighting, to improve the working conditions in factories. Additionally, safety measures need to be put in place to prevent accidents, such as fire safety measures and the implementation of safety protocols to prevent collapses like the one that occurred at Rana Plaza.
  2. Increase wages: The wages of garment workers in Bangladesh are extremely low, and this needs to change in order to ensure that workers are able to support themselves and their families. Brands and factory owners should work together to increase wages and ensure that workers are paid a living wage.
  3. Strengthen workers’ rights: Industry leaders, associations, government and trade unions should revisit the current labor law and setup a good example of laws where the workers’ right to form unions and collective bargain are ensured. These rights need to be respected and upheld in order to ensure that workers have a voice in their workplace and are able to negotiate for better conditions and wages.
  4. Increase transparency: Brands should be more transparent about their supply chains and the factories that they use. This would enable workers, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders to monitor working conditions and hold brands accountable for any violations of human rights.
  5. Encourage responsible investment: Investors in the apparel industry should prioritize investments in companies that have strong human rights policies and practices. This will incentivize companies to improve their human rights record and create a more sustainable and ethical industry.

Conclusion

In summary, addressing the human rights challenges facing the Bangladesh apparel industry will require a multi-faceted approach that involves the concerted efforts of brands, factory owners, workers, civil society organizations, and government authorities. By working together to improve working conditions, increase wages, strengthen workers’ rights, increase transparency, and encourage responsible investment, we can create a more just and equitable apparel industry that respects the rights and dignity of all those involved in its production.

Collected from : Textile Today

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