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H&M Models How Fashion Brands Can Help Refugees

Covid-19 and its repercussions have shined a harsh light on the situation for global refugees.

Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, for instance—now at more than 1 million—have been beset by a litany of difficulties. First they were pushed into overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazaar, then a series of fires ravaged the camps, followed by the government moving them to the island of Bhasan Char with its low-lying topography in the path of cyclones. This, as hope of returning to Myanmar receded amidst the violent coup there earlier this year.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), developing countries host 86 percent of the world’s refugees. Least Developed Countries (LDCs) provide asylum to 27 percent of those.

Bangladesh, despite its status as the world’s second-largest apparel exporter, is yet an LDC. It is also among the 10 countries with the highest population in the world, and still battling a growing wave of Covid-19 infections.

“These are people without livelihood, and considering the situation in Myanmar, it is unlikely that they would be going back any time soon and what Bangladesh could be doing, is to use the refugee population, give them opportunities. It would help the Bangladesh economy as well, because the ancillary things that go with any kind of manufacturing could also provide labor, which would eventually help Bangladesh,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Sourcing Journal.

Some believe the Rohingyas in Bangladesh could look for help from global brands and retailers, as the Syrian refugees did in Turkey where they ultimately won legal status and the right to work. Observers wonder if that same concept could work in other countries that host large refugee populations, such as Columbia (1.7 million refugees), Uganda (1.4 million refugees), and Pakistan (1.4 million refugees).

Turkey holds the largest number of refugees in the world, with nearly 3.7 million from Syria, and like Bangladesh, refugees once were not legally allowed to work. In 2016, with intense lobbying by organizations like the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Fair Labour Association, the Turkish government agreed to give refugees legal status.

Retailers like H&M, Next and Marks & Spencer started the process of inclusion.

There are more than one million refugees in Bangladesh.
There are more than one million refugees in Bangladesh. GlobalGiving

It worked in their interest as well, as many of the Turkish manufacturers would subcontract production, and the cheap Syrian labor led to supply chain exploitation and degradation.

By ensuring the labor had work permits, and were paid the due wages, global brands provided a dual role: protecting themselves, as well as helping create models of sustenance for refugees.

H&M is a really good example of a company that has thought about how to integrate refugees into their supply chains, with very positive results so far,” said Veronica Rossini, director of marketing and communications at The Tent Partnership for Refugees, an organization that mobilizes the business community to improve the lives and livelihoods of refugees.

Rossini emphasized the importance of prioritizing integration of refugees with work and involvement, as opposed to only thinking about monetary donations.

“Financial donations can be really important when responding to a crisis—but they’re not the most impactful action companies can take. When you think about the impact you can make by giving a refugee a job, by making sure they can support themselves, it’s a very different kind of impact. They are able to pay rent, pay taxes, they are able to give back to the community that has welcomed them,” she said.

“The other piece is: how do you start shifting the narrative about refugees? Brands like Inditex or H&M are pretty public about the work they are doing with vulnerable populations like refugees, and start to normalize the discussion on the way a brand can engage in what can be seen a polarizing issue. Even starting small is very powerful. Hopefully others will be inspired by what these brands are doing and will get involved,” Rossini said.

The Turkish model has not been perfect. The issue of exploitation has not wholly abated, and the process of giving workers a contract before they can get a permit to work is seen by many employers as cumbersome and difficult. It also takes away the cheap labor, sometimes at half the minimum wage, that had helped cut costs.

“There is a growing group of leading brands taking targeted and thoughtful steps to ensure that refugee workers are not exploited. In our survey, brands [that] had previously demonstrated best practices, like Next and New Look, have been joined by brands that have improved their approach, like ASOS, Inditex, Otto Group and SuperGroup,” Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRCC) noted in a survey on the issue: “What’s changed for Syrian refugees in Turkish garment supply chains?”

“Leading brands have also increased and strengthened their auditing of suppliers in Turkey. Most of these brands also reported an increase in the number of refugee workers identified in their supply chains, a crucial first step to ending abuse,” the report noted.

Acceptance that the refugees are there to stay, and need to be integrated into society, seems to be the fulcrum of change.

“The idea and the hope for many countries is that the refugees will return to their homes one day, and it is an issue of tough geo-politics. But if Bangladesh wanted to look at giving the refugees worker rights, these could be in certain areas such as Bhasan Char, which are separated from the usual production centers of the garment industry like Dhaka,” said Nurul Huda Sakib, associate professor, department of government and politics,  at Jahangirnagar University, just outside Dhaka.

Simply put, brands and retailers can play a major role in the process of change.

“Western brands could help the Rohingya refugees by negotiating with the Bangladesh authorities by setting up something in the camps, where they would like to offer employment,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, of Human Rights Watch. “We haven’t seen that happen. Obviously, the compliance and all the regulatory measures would be needed and the conditions of the camps are pretty dire, and it’s understandable that sourcing companies would be apprehensive about it.”

Tent’s Rossini listed other courses of action: “From our perspective there are three big things that companies can do in terms of integrating refugees into their supply chains. First is what H&M is doing, which is to encourage their suppliers in Turkey to hire refugees in their operations,” Rossini said.

“The second is around advocacy, which again H&M, ASOS and others have done in Turkey. It can be replicated. If a brand has operations in a country like Bangladesh—where refugees don’t have the right to work but where many garment factories have suppliers—how can they put pressure on the government to change right to work laws so refugees can work legally? This will also avoid refugees being pushed into situations of forced labor, which can have reputational repercussions for brands.”

“Third, which is what Levi’s is doing with their Porto Alegre collection, is working with refugee artisans or tailors to produce capsule collections. Ikea is doing something similar working with the Jordan River foundation—which employs Syrian refugee women alongside Jordanian women—to produce a capsule collection. This is similar to the Levi’s model, and one which can be replicated in other refugee-hosting countries,” she said.

Ultimately, as an official from UNHCR put it: “Advocacy is one thing, the smallest practical gesture of help quite another.”