Living in Bangladesh for many years, I saw for myself the difference that having a job in the garments industry made to so many young women’s lives. The income – in a society where there were few opportunities for most women – the confidence to leave the village, the pride of supporting their families back home, the incentive for them to stay in school and for their families to support them to do so because there was a possible job at the end of it.

All of these things and more transformed the lives of many millions of women over recent decades. But of course, the garments industry is not an unalloyed benefit. There is a darker side too. Wages can be low and hours long. Conditions can be poor, pressure to meet deadlines and hit targets extreme. Most of the bosses are men and there are many examples of exploitation and abuse, and we all remember the horror of the Rana Plaza factory disaster a few years ago.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at an event for international businesses, exploring how they can be better corporate citizens. I told them that if we are to end poverty we certainly need industries like the garments industry; indeed we need successful business and trade both within countries and right across the world. But need them all to behave responsibly. However, we should no more seek to close down the international garments industry for its shortcomings and abuses than we should end humanitarian assistance because of the unacceptable behaviour of those aid workers who abused their
power in Haiti or elsewhere. I don’t intend to overstate the parallels between two very different types of operation, other than to say that what we need to do in both is look hard at the way they are organised, managed, regulated and led to make sure we get the best and not the worst.

In the case of business, this means looking at many issues, including wages, especially the difference between minimum and living wages; at wage differentials and the distribution of profits; at conditions not just for directly employed staff but also in supply chains; the farther up the chains you look, the more exploitation you often find. Companies need to examine the impact of all policies and practice on women and men; they are often unintentionally different and women regularly miss out on opportunities for promotion, training, and job security for family and cultural reasons.
Companies need to reflect on their approach to taxes, both national and internationally. And the most forward looking companies will be considering what they can do to really engage wider stakeholders than just shareholders or family owners. More use of cooperatives directly or through the supply chain, profit sharing, worker and community representation are all possibilities.

This challenge to look at labour rights is not confined to the garments industry. Last week we join with Oxfam colleagues around the world as we launch Behind the Barcodes, a multi year campaign to improve labour standards among those who, across the world, produce and sell the food we eat. Millions of women and men producing food for supermarkets are forced to work for next to nothing, often in dangerous conditions. In the UK we will be the big supermarkets’ critical friend as we ask them to look at where they can make change
to change lives.

The international companies I was speaking to at the recent event are all family owned. One thing they all recognise is the need to drive their values through everything they do and is done in their name. We often hear fine words and, indeed, genuine commitment from corporate leaders to be a good employer, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into decisions and behaviour on the ground many miles away from the boardroom. At the event, I heard from the owner of a Turkish manufacturing business that supplies one of our biggest clothing chains. She knows all about their corporate
statements and policies, and impressive they are, but said that the only things the local buyer really considers in relating to her are price, quality and delivery deadline.

If companies are to really live their values, their selection of staff, training, supervision and maybe most importantly of all, policies for reward, recognition and incentives at all levels of the business need to be aligned to the values companies really want to drive, and not just to commercial delivery.

The same principle is of course just as true in the world of humanitarian and development assistance. We have to drive our values through everything we do and everywhere we do it. This needs a holistic approach.

I hope that talking openly about where Oxfam failed in this respect in Haiti – and many organisations have failed in other places – as well as what we are doing to put this right, show that we understand the all too real challenges facing businesses that are themselves striving to do the right thing.

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