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ILO Adopts ‘Milestone’ Health and Safety Code for Garment, Footwear Sectors

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has adopted a first-of-its-kind “milestone” code of practice on safety and health in the textiles, clothing, leather and footwear industries that it says could improve the lives of millions of workers worldwide.

Based on international labor standards and other sectoral guidelines, the new code provides “comprehensive and practical advice” on the elimination, reduction and control of major hazards and risks, including those relating to chemical substances, ergonomic and physical dangers, tools, machines and equipment and building and fire safety. It was developed by a tripartite body of experts from employers’ groups, workers’ organizations and government with an eye of “building back better” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has upended nearly every aspect of the global supply chain and thrown a multitude of livelihoods into disarray.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us of how important safety and health, and a human-centered approach are, if we want to build forward better,” Alette van Leur, director of the ILO sectoral policies department, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that as these industries rebound, the new code of practice will serve as a basis for developing national or company occupational safety and health (OSH) management systems and contribute to the overall improvements of working conditions in this sector and beyond.”

More than 60 million workers across the globe are expected to benefit from the code, which is designed to provide a “practical” basis for employers, workers and governments to work together to improve occupational health and safety. The guidelines are expected to have greater weight in developing countries and emerging economies, where regulations are less robust and enforcement is frequently lax. Internationally, roughly 2.8 million workers across different sectors die every year from work-related injuries and diseases, according to the ILO. Another 160 million workers contract work-related diseases, and 374 million incur non-fatal injuries. More than 4 percent of the world’s annual gross domestic product is lost as a result of these conditions, it added.

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“We acknowledge and support the pivotal role the ILO has to play in strengthening both national and sectoral occupational safety and health systems,” said Bastian Fochmann, government vice-chair of the experts’ meeting that adopted the code. “With this code of practice on safety and health—and thanks to the excellent contributions of employers, workers and governments—we are now equipped with the OSH tools and approaches the textiles, clothing, leather and footwear industries and their supply chains need to ensure a safer and brighter future for all.”

The code includes worker participation as an “essential element” of OSH management, requiring employers to seek the participation of workers and their representatives in the development of any policies and their rollouts.

“We want to ensure that Rana Plaza will never happen again,” said Kamrul Anam, worker vice-chair, referring to the Bangladesh factory complex that collapsed in 2013, killing 1,134 workers and injuring thousands more. “If everyone commits to translating the provisions in this code into action, we can ensure that no worker—in Bangladesh or any other country—will ever have to risk their life in a garment factory again.”

Because the code isn’t legally binding, it is not subject to the ratification or supervisory mechanisms established under the ILO’s international labor standards. What it does is offer a series of best practices that are “aspirational in scope” but can be adapted progressively into different national settings, cultures and social, economic, environmental and political contexts.

“Having spent the past 50 years regulating, enforcing and, in particular, promoting occupational safety and health, I can personally attest to the fact that the adoption of this ILO Code of Practice is a milestone in the textiles, clothing, leather and footwear industries,” said Jukka Takala, chair of the experts’ meeting.

The code comes as worker conditions are facing increasing scrutiny, particularly in the context of the ongoing health crisis. In the global south, workers in the textiles, clothing, leather and footwear sectors are among the least prioritized for vaccines, yet many continue to labor in crowded conditions where infection can fester unchecked, often without adequate social distancing or personal protective equipment.

It’s with broader worker wellbeing in mind that the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh transitioned to the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, providing it with a mandate not only beyond Bangladesh, but surpassing fire and building safety as well. Like the original Accord, which was forged by brands and labor groups in the aftermath of Rana Plaza, the new International Accord is legally binding, which its champions say makes it more effective than voluntary agreements. To date, 135 retailers have signed on, including Adidas, American Eagle Outfitters, Asos, H&M, Hugo Boss, Zara owner Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Primark and Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp.

“This International Accord is an important victory towards making the textile and garment industry safe and sustainable,” Valter Sanches, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, said last month. “The agreement maintains the legally binding provision for companies and most importantly the scope has been expanded to other countries and other provisions, encompassing general health and safety. Now, the textile and garment companies must show their commitment and sign the renewed International Accord.”