We know who made your clothes.....and it ain't all bad

We’re fresh from a trip to Phnom Penh this week to conduct a factory needs assessment in relation to the health needs of garment workers. It’s been about a year since we were last in the midst of sewing machines and production lines so it was a good reminder of some of the great work that suppliers and their buyers are engaged in, that go beyond compliance. It also served to bring to light the work we still need to do to ensure that Supplier Codes of Conduct has the social impact that buyers want.

The Good and Great

Buyers and suppliers are starting to work together to go beyond compliance. We are now working directly with suppliers who are proactively looking for ways to improve conditions and looking to engage their vendors to be part of the solution. For example, the supplier we are working is exploring how it can educate the street food vendors that their workers purchase lunch from, to improve food hygiene.

In some cases, as in ours, buyers such as Lulumelon are helping to kick start these changes through small grants that subsidise larger supplier owned programmes. In other cases, buyers are directly providing technical support to factories. Whatever the case is, the great news is that there is increasing collaboration between the two sides.

The Work to be Done

If there’s one thing which consistently serves as a reminder of how far we need to go, it’s the Supplier Codes of Conduct (COC) that adorn every factory wall. Let’s face it sticking COCs on factory walls does nothing except appease auditors’ penchant for ticking boxes. If the intention for putting COCs on factory walls is to ensure that those who make our clothes really know what they should expect from the factories who employ them, then buyers need to ensure that their COC is communicated to employees in a manner that they understand.

Buyers can start by asking suppliers to integrate key aspects of the COC in induction training. Better yet, develop posters and videos that help to translate the COC for workers in a consistent manner.

Another sight which continues to irk me are Buyer mandated mother’s rooms which are either locked and left to collect dust or used as store rooms. It’s an example of well-intentioned policy aimed at accommodate breastfeeding mums, which has been developed without regard to local context.

Mothers don’t bring their babies to factories as the infrastructure does not exist for ensure that children are looked after when they are at work. Instead, once their maternity leave ends, women generally leave their babies at home with their grandparents. If Buyers do want to encourage mum friendly workplaces, they need to ask and incentivise suppliers to provide childcare facilities or provide for longer maternity leave. We need to start with the problem we are trying to solve and not impose a solution.


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