By Karen Bowman, University of Edinburgh Director of Procurement
A number of recent fires and factory collapses in Asia have resulted in the killing and maiming of thousands of workers. Such human abuse and horrific disaster is surely a wake-up call for improving standards for garment workers, and indeed all workers. While these disasters may not have occurred in factories that are part of our University’s supply chains, we need to find ways to use our roles as procurers of goods to prevent such tragedies in future.
In attempt to begin to address such issues, we are already tapping into a range of initiatives which focus on workers’ welfare and rights. We are a Scotland’s first Fairtrade University (and indeed Scotland has now become a Fair Trade Nation), buying fair trade products where possible. We are part of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which sends us ‘abuse’ reports about garment factories (mainly for USA college-branded goods). Our universities and colleges procurement centre of expertise, APUC Ltd, is developing a sustainable supply chain policy and code of conduct, with input from the National Union of Students (NUS), People & Planet, myself, and peers at Aberdeen University and Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC). However, we know research indicates that such ‘codes’ alone have limited effect.
WRC’s latest report on the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh says amongst other things ‘…what is needed in Bangladesh is a nationwide program of factory renovations and repairs to convert unsafe structures into buildings that are fundamentally safe for workers. This must be funded in substantial part by higher prices to factories from brands and retailers. The WRC helped to develop a binding, enforceable fire and building safety agreement under which such a program would be carried out and we continue to urge brands and retailers to sign it.”
Signing a code or even a ‘binding agreement’ is just the start. Surely the only way to make a significant difference is to research, develop and deliver on ‘fair trade and global justice’. A research-led approach needs to identify what practices should be endorsed and implemented, monitored and audited, and we should demand at the very least our own contracted suppliers and service providers work with universities to access the latest research and best practice.
We have recently created a Fair Trade Academic Network and a Global Justice Academy here, and I would welcome their help to see if the University can shed even a little light on how best we in the rich ‘buying’ part of the globe can really make some real and lasting progress on standards for those in the poor ‘producing’ countries, so that this kind of abuse and horrific disaster becomes historic and not a recurring part of world trade and globalisation. Slavery was stopped (well almost) by political and consumer revulsion.
For more discussion or to learn about our fair trade university policy or academic network, feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org, University Fair Trade Coordinator.