24th April 2013 is not a date which resonates in the memory of people in the same way as 11th September 2001 or July 7th 2005. Yet, on this day, over 1,100 people were killed in the Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. Their deaths were not a result of terrorism, but of structural inadequacies in the building that saw 38 people charged with murder.
Western companies connected to Rana Plaza were also criticised for not doing more to prevent the disaster. Primark, the British-owned cheap clothing company, whose supplier ‘New Wave Bottoms’ was based on the second floor of the Rana Plaza factory building, ended up paying over £10 million in compensation to victim’s families, and it was not the only British or European based company to do so. The accident shone a spotlight over UK and EU companies sourcing from countries with poor regulatory standards, including low worker’s pay, poor working conditions and exploitation in company supply chains.
British companies need to be held accountable for what happens in their supply chains, including when disasters like Rana Plaza occur, but also for poor working conditions in general. Voluntary schemes are not enough. The Modern Slavery Act, for example, stipulates that companies producing a turnover in excess of £36 million are required to publish an annual review of slavery within their supply chains. However, CORE, the UK organisation working to improve corporate accountability, revealed in a 2017 report that only one third of British companies covered by the Act have in fact reported such a statement as part of the Transparency in Supply (TISC) clause.
This matters now more than ever because the UK is currently pursuing the most complicated political negotiation in our history, at a time when labour exploitation resurfaces as a major societal issue. Our withdrawal from the European Union, and, by effect, the Single Market and the Customs Union, leaves an estimated 13,000 pieces of legislation to be removed or reinvented. We will no longer be bound by EU trade deals which include a ‘Trade and Sustainable Development Chapters’ (TSDs). The TSD chapters ensure complex yet vital provisions between the EU and its trading partners on workers’ rights are upheld. The UK needs to replicate such provisions in its post-Brexit deals as a bare minimum, yet NGOs working on trade argue that this is not sufficient. Brexit means we now have a negotiating platform with the EU and the rest of the world unlike never before. Liam Fox recently revealed that we should expect 40 trade deals with over 70 countries by the end of the Brexit transition period. It is easy to envisage how the government will prioritise deregulation of labour standards to increase competitiveness in such hurried trade agreements. Human rights must be at the forefront of new trade deals, not side-lined, and trade deals must work in tandem with domestic improvements to corporate accountability.
Theresa May repeatedly claims that Brexit presents an opportunity to forge a “Global Britain”. Let us not become a Global Britain which tolerates modern slavery and labour exploitation as part of our economic policy.
Hayden Banks is a Campaign Volunteer with LCHR