Global fashion brands are compounding sufferings of millions of garment workers through their tightfistedness in pricing, as a global report reveals major gaps in supply-chain needs and apparel-retailing companies' commitments.
Such hiatus between what the fashion brands gain and what they hand down to suppliers result in insufficient wages to apparel workers and deficiency in labour rights, says a survey report presented Monday at a Dhaka meet jointly organised by the UNDP and the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA).
A trade-union leader at the function noted that lack of bargaining capacity of workers exploded into recent street protests for pressing home wage-hike demand.
The apparel companies-94 per cent of surveyed ones--have high expectations for their suppliers regarding human rights and/or gender equality but these are not backed by their responsible purchasing practices or actions.
The survey report says avoiding short-notice requirements and delayed payments, and mapping supply chains or providing targeted support on gender equality could set suppliers up for success.
The industry still fails to fully protect workers' rights as the report found over 60 per cent of surveyed global apparel brands, including Walmart, Target, Next and Nike, having scored less than 20 out of 100 on human-rights indicators.
The average score is 18.2 and just one company, Puma, scored above 50 out of 100, according to the 2023 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) report launched on the day at the webinar.
The World Benchmarking Alliance or WBA assessed 55 of the world's most influential apparel companies, including Puma, H&M, M&S, Hugo Boss, Ralf Lauren Corporation, Gap, Adidas, Fast Retailing, Kering, SHEIN, and VF Corporation, based on their governance and strategy, workplace, and supply-chain practices, and more than half of the surveyed buyers and retailers source apparel items from Bangladesh.
The webinar on 'Addressing Power Imbalance in Global Supply Chain', jointly organised by UNDP and WBA, also published another benchmark report on gender.
"Only 27-percent surveyed companies enable their suppliers to meet their expectations through responsible purchasing practices such as avoiding short-notice requirements and delayed payments," Sofía del Valle, WBA engagement lead, said while sharing the findings at the virtual event.
Some 56 per cent of the surveyed fashion companies still aren't identifying all of their direct and indirect suppliers, the CHRB found.
Without such mapping, companies have no way of protecting workers, as they do not know who or where their suppliers are, or what issues they face, the report notes.
However, the recent protests by garment workers in Bangladesh calling for increased wages are a stark reminder that actions on paying supply-chain workers a living wage are still too slow, the WBA said.
"Many companies are still passive and not transparent on the issue, leaving workers at risk of poverty," it says.
Of all apparel companies assessed, only 12 companies (22 per cent) disclose evidence of activities that support their suppliers in the payment of living wage.
When it comes to corporate commitments, only 7 companies (13 per cent) disclose a time-bound target for the payment of living wages across their supply chains or include living-wage requirements in their contracts with suppliers.
"Companies that carry out rigorous supply-chain mapping perform better in all gender- equality indicators," says the report.
High-performing companies across both benchmarks, including VF Corporation and Inditex, have fundamental corporate due diligence and sector-specific policies for their supply chain to protect workers against violence, harassment, and child and forced labour.
Others, including SHEIN, Prada, and Youngor Group, fail to meet key indicators across human rights and gender equality.
It also shows the sector has shown some progress compared to previous benchmarks, with 69 per cent having improved their score since 2018 on key human-rights indicators.
The WBA in its report recommends that apparel companies must better understand their supply chain to be able to support suppliers and called them to urgently step up to protect all workers, including the transparent disclosure of clear commitments, taking preventive and remediation measures, and supporting suppliers through responsible purchasing.
"Well-rounded gender-equality measures are essential to protect garment workers from violence and harassment, but many apparel companies don't have this as a priority," the survey report says.
Most companies (85 per cent) have a policy that protects women from violence and harassment in the workplace, but significantly fewer companies (66 per cent) require their suppliers to do the same. And 27 per cent do not require their suppliers to have an equal opportunity or non-discrimination policy that explicitly protects pregnant and/or married women workers.
Only 4.0 per cent of companies have publicly disclosed processes to remediate violence and harassment grievances which detail clear sanctions for perpetrators, including termination, it showed.
Namit Agarwal, WBA's social transformation lead, said: "Fashion brands are still too slow to respect human rights and gender equality."
"Companies are failing to support suppliers and workers putting at risk the apparel sector as a whole. Not a single company requires its suppliers to offer a minimum of 14 weeks of maternity leave, which is an internationally agreed standard," she said.
Speaking at the webinar, Kalpona Akter, executive director at Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, stressed allowing trade unions in local garment factories not in number but in real practices to enable workers to go for bargaining.
Terming recently set Tk 12,500 as minimum monthly wage 'insufficient to afford necessities, she said, "Absence of bargaining capacity forced workers to come to the street to realise wage-hike demand."
She also called on buyers not to put additional requirements in their code of conduct without value addition.
Explaining BGMEA's (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) 2030 vision, Sheikh H M Mustafiz, chairman at the standing committee on sustainability, said any initiative or measure engaged in cost and fair price is an issue in addressing all the required things.
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