Most countries where garments are manufactured have good labour legislation, but it is not enforced for a number of reasons. National governments seek to attract foreign investment and to promote exports to fulfill their strategies for economic growth, and are under pressure from companies and competition from other garment exporting companies to keep costs low. For example, governments may establish low minimum wages to remain competitive in relation to labour costs, or, implicitly or explicitly, restrict the rights of trade unions to operate. Many national governments are not able to invest the resources required to effectively apply the law or do not have the necessary mechanisms, such as labour courts, to ensure workers' rights are upheld.Trade unions and labour organisations in these countries actively pressure their governments to improve the situation.
In consumer countries, campaigns are increasingly demanding that governments in these countries, such as the UK, improve the legal framework so that fashion brands and retailers are obliged by law to ensure the respect of garment workers' rights in their supply chains overseas. Campaigners argue that corporate social responsibility - which is voluntary - will never deliver real improvements for garment workers and it would be more effective if companies were bound by law to be accountable, take responsibility for and report on their social and environmental impact.
There are a number of initiatives that attempt to ensure the legal liability of both supplier and buying companies, although there are many reasons why these have not yet been succesful. Nationally, there are examples of attempts to ensure liability through litigation. At the international level, the OECD Guidelines on Multi-national Enterprises and International Labour Organisation are other mechanisms, although both have weaknesses in their ability to ensure the liability of companies.
At the international trade policy level, the EU's Generalised System of Preferences for developing countries, includes a scheme (GSP+) that gives countries reduced tariffs to import certain products into the UK, if they adhere to international conventions on labour rights, human rights and the environment. Sri Lanka is an example of a garment producing country benefiting from this scheme, not without controversy.
Read about how the European Coalition for Corporate Justice is increasing European co-operation amongst NGOs working on Corporate Accountability and raising public awareness about the role of the European Union to regulate business.
- Controlling Corporate Wrongs - The liability of multinational corpoations: Legal possibilities, initiatives and strategies for civil society. Report of the international IRENE seminar on corporate liability and workers' rights held at the University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom, 20 and 21 March 2000
The Clean Clothes Campaign website has other resources available.
For more information about the EU's GSP+ system, read EU gives developing countries duty-free access with GSP+ - Brussels, 9 December 2008.
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