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Presented by Isabelle Kumar

As workers die, holding multinationals to account
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There has been plenty of soul searching and remorse in the wake of last month’s deadly tradegy at a Bangladesh clothing factory, but will there be any real long-term commitment to ensure such a disaster does not happen again?

Exploring the debate, euronews’ Isabelle Kumar spoke with Philip Jennings – the General Secretary of the UNI Global Union. It brings together 900 unions, representing 15 million workers worldwide, and has been pushing for moves to make the clothing industry safer and less exploitative.

Isabelle Kumar, euronews: “Phillip, we are in the grips of a recession, consumers are asking for cheaper and cheaper goods, we’ve already seen another factory collapse in Cambodia. Do you think you can ensure such a disaster doesn’t happen again?”

Phillip Jennings: “We’ve put together an agreement, UNI Global Union with another global union, IndustriALL. This is a partnership of manufacturing, and services, and the commerce sector. It is an accord on fire and factory safety in Bangladesh. This is an agreement with a difference. It is a legally binding, enforceable agreement. We have more than 40 of the major retail, global brands signed up to a legally binding agreement. This matters. This is different. And this is going to have an impact. And I say to all of those European consumers, even in the midst of a recession, even at a time of squeeze, are you prepared to pay a penny or a cent more to have the assurance of the products you are buying are not built on the exploitation of children, and of mothers, working in factory conditions that would be unacceptable to every single European Union citizen? We’ve had enough, they’ve had enough. And that’s why this agreement is in place – to change and make a new reality in Bangladesh and other countries.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews: “Well, you say Bangladesh and other countries, but this agreement only implicates Bangladesh. Why didn’t you get retailers to sign up to an agreement in all of the countries they operate in?”

Phillip Jennings: “One of the issues we are going to have to discuss is how do we make this a broader-based agreement. But given the factory collapse, given the fact that more than 2,000 lives have been lost in Bangladesh, given that in Bangladesh this is a sector employing four million people in 4,000 factories, that was the critical issue. But help is coming and help is on the way for all of those other countries. I think it is inevitable that we broaden the discussion.”

Isabelle Kumar: “Let’s go to our first question, which comes from France.”

“Good morning, my name is Nicolas and I am French. Which big companies haven’t yet signed up to the safety accord for Bangladesh?”

Isabelle Kumar: “So you’ve had some big names signing up – H&M, Calvin Klein, Primark, Carrefour – but some notable absences. Who are they?”

Phillip Jennings: “The most notable absence is in the United States of America. We do have Abercrombie & Fitch, we have Calvin Klein, we have Tommy Hilfiger, and we have many other big, global names, but principally from the European Union countries, which is a very good thing. But the world’s largest supermarket chain is Walmart. They employ two million people. They are the supply-chain experts. They know how to squeeze every grain out of the supply-chain to reduce costs. They’ve refused, they’ve said they are going to do their own thing, they’re going to be their own judge and jury, they are the new flag of convenience to themselves in this process. And Gap as well. Gap likes to present itself as trendy, contemporary, responsible. I don’t know what is going on in Gap, but they’ve also refused to sign. They were holding out for a side-agreement, just for them, and we’ve simply refused.”

Isabelle Kumar: “The US National Retail Federation has said that the agreement you have worked upon lacks, and I quote here ‘common sense’. This is particularly problematic for the US, what do you say to that?”

Phillip Jennings: “Honestly, the common sense missing here is from Glenn Murphy, the CEO of Gap, and the board of directors of Walmart. And an absence of any sense of gravitas or consequence by the National Retail Federation. They are being bullied by Walmart, bullied by Gap, and they are saying this lacks common sense. We are talking about life and death here. The common sense is about doing what we can, together, private and union with government, to improve the quality of life for the Bangladeshis. That’s common sense, but it’s also the common good.”

Isabelle Kumar: “If you are talking about life and death then, it could be argued that you’ve been quite intransigent in the negotiation process. Wouldn’t it have been better to get a bit of a broader coalition of retailers on board, and be more acquiescent to their demands?”

Phillip Jennings: “Isabelle, we have a broad coalition of retail brands, household names.”

Isabelle Kumar: “But the big ones, like Walmart and Gap, aren’t on board…”

Phillip Jennings: “Hang on a minute, have you seen the list of companies that have signed up for this agreement, Isabelle?”

Isabelle Kumar: “Yes, I have.”

Phillip Jennings: “Have you seen the names, do you want me to read them all out to all your listeners?”

Isabelle Kumar: “No, because we haven’t got time.”

Phillip Jennings: “Well, the thing is, I don’t want you or your listeners or viewers to get the impression that this is somehow a marginal event, that it doesn’t have a critical mass, that somehow this is a side-show. Look, the retail brands have had decades to get this right and we are no longer going to accept these voluntary agreements that are not properly enforceable. Where there is no transparency. Where all we get are vague promises, like “yes, things will improve.”

Isabelle Kumar: “We’ve only got time for one more viewer question, and that comes from the United Kingdom.”

“My name is Tessa Waite and I’m from the UK. The EU has said it will do more to improve labour standards in Bangladesh – will the pledge become reality?”

Isabelle Kumar: “So, Europe is Bangladesh’s main trading partner, and Europe has said it’s going to take appropriate action. What are you going to be doing to make sure action does take place at the EU level?”

Phillip Jennings: “Well, it sounds like cold tea to me. The European Union making a wishy-washy statement about we must do more to implement, improve labour standards in Bangladesh is not enough. I think Mr Barroso, Mr Van Rompuy, and Mr László Andor, the Social Affairs Commissioner, should say we support this agreement. We support the business community, and IndustriALL and UNI Global Union, to ensure this is applied. The European Union has to stop the race to the bottom, and what we have seen is the human tragedy and consequences of this race to the bottom, where basically these Bangladeshi workers are surviving on (the equivalent of) 38 dollars a month.”

Isabelle Kumar: “What’s your gut feeling though, do you think there will be commitment at the EU level?”

Phillip Jennings: “All I can do, and the ETUC – the European Trade Union movement – will use their best persuasive powers to ensure that this will happen in practice. And the European Union could put more favorable winds in our sails by making it clear to the retail industry – which after all is the biggest private sector employer in Europe – that the goods that they sell are being produced in fair factories, under fair and safe conditions. And that when we cross the threshold of every shop we do so as consumers with a clear conscience, that this, at the end of the day, is making the world of commerce turn, turn for business, but at the end of the day for the people who are toiling in intolerable conditions, that they will get a better life.”

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