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Ten Biggest Labor Stories of 2013

After the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factories, the whole world has been introduced to the issue of social compliance, closely scrutinizing  once obscure topics like factory safety and international labor conditions. Remote locales like Bangladesh and Haiti regularly grace the front page of top newspapers, dominating above-the-fold coverage like never before. It has been a year of both catastrophe and progress for the world’s poorest workers, toiling under often squalid circumstances but also finding a global stage upon which to collectively voice their pleas for help. These are the ten most consequential stories the Sourcing Journal ran on global labor in 2013, by turns both inspiring and dispiriting.

10. Are Uzbekistan’s Labor Conditions Worse than Bangladesh’s? 

While Bangladesh has become an emblem of labor exploitation, Uzbekistan has largely managed to elude the mainstream spotlight, despite a woeful record of human rights violations.

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), a U.N. based organization, has filed a formal complaint with U.S. Customs, alleging that its cotton production uses forced child labor and demanding that Uzbek cotton be banned.

9. Child Labor Plagues Global Garment Industry

Despite a newfound emphasis on social compliance, the global textile industry is still plagued by child labor, according to a new report issued by U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.

The sprawling 900 page report, “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor,”  documents the unsettling fact that 168 million children still work illegally, 85 million of them in “hazardous” conditions. And some of the worst offenders are prominent sourcing destinations in Asia like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Nepal.

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8. Is Haiti the Future of Compliance?

In the midst of worldwide concerns over garment factory safety and labor conditions, one modern-minded manufacturer in Haiti emerges with a model for social responsibility.

The newfangled factory, Industrial Revolution II (IRII), believes in social advancement for its workers and is on a mission to shift Haiti’s apparel products to the higher end and improve the country’s perception as a garment producer.

7. Walmart Plans to Publish Factory Inspection Results; Critics Unimpressed

Walmart will finally release the results of a much anticipated audit of its Bangladesh factories for safety, the first time a major Western retailer has provided such a transparent portal into its inspections process.

Currently, Walmart contracts with more than 200 factories in Bangladesh and has, thus far, managed to inspect seventy-five of them. Approximately 15 percent of these failed the initial round of inspections. One of these was in such egregious violation of code it had to be shuttered. The company’s plan is to have completed an inspection of all of its factories and begin publishing the results in the next few months.

6.WRAP CEO: The Rise of Fast Fashion Pressures Factories into Non-Compliance

After the Tazreen Fashions fire and Rana Plaza collapse, compliance rocketed to the top of the agenda for firms working in Bangladesh, but that may not necessarily save lives, says Avedis Seferian, President and CEO of WRAP, a compliance certification company. Current industry trends like fast fashion exert considerable pressure on factories to violate compliance regulations.

5. H&M Unveils Plan to Offer “Fair Living Wage” to Factory Workers

Increasingly asserting itself as an industry leader regarding compliance, Swedish retailer H&M has announced that it plans to deliver a “fair living wage” to the 850,000 textile workers who produce its garments by 2018.

H&M had published a “road map” for accomplishing what initially seems like a daunting task. First, it plans to collaborate with factory owners to “develop pay structures that enable a fair living wage, ensure correct compensation and overtime within legal limits.” Then, starting next year, H&M will test its approach in three separate factories, one in Cambodia, where it continues to bolster its presence, and one in Bangladesh.

4.Bangladesh Passes Historic Labor Law

On July 15th, Bangladeshi parliament passed a newly amended labor law that many are praising as a historic step towards the gradual improvement of its widely criticized working conditions.

Bangladesh’s Secretary of Labor, Mikail Shiper, called the new legislation “world class,” citing the overhaul of eighty-seven provisions contained within the 2006 labor law. The bill is known as the Bangladesh Labour Bill, 2013.

3.Twin Reports: Haiti’s Labor Practice Most Exploitive in the World

Ever since Bangladesh drew international scrutiny for its woeful factory safety and labor conditions, there has been a global search for viable sourcing alternatives to it. Haiti has been benefiting from those roving eyes, garnering attention from major Western retailers like H&M and Uniqlo. However, two new reports issued this month, highlighting the nation’s own struggles to meet the demands of social compliance, undercut the hypothesis that it can serve as an ethically responsible substitute to other politically risky, developing nations.

2. Exclusive Interview: Shafiqul Islam, Counselor of Commerce from Bangladesh Embassy

As part of the Mary Robinson Speaker Series on Business and Human Rights, Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter spoke at the Ford Foundation on November 19. The Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, Akter forcefully criticized both the Bangladesh government and Western retailers for what she interpreted as their inadequate contributions to labor reform. Present at the talk was Shafiqul Islam, the Counselor of Commerce at the Embassy of Bangladesh. Islam spoke exclusively to the Sourcing Journal about his take on Kalpona’s views and the larger question of Bangladesh’s struggles with factory safety and working conditions.

1. Exclusive Interview: Kalpona Akter, Executive Director of Bangladesh Center For Worker Solidarity

The tragedies and strife that befell Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) sector over the past year have both marred the industry’s image and prompted international pressure to make changes to factory workplace standards. But while that pressure has forced some stakeholders to act, little has actually changed in the country.

Speaking exclusively to Sourcing Journal, Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) who has been continuously fighting for garment worker rights in her country, said Bangladesh faces two problems at the same time: corruption and business groups within politics.