“We want to work. But we also want dignity, fair payment, justice and health. My request to all of you who are here today, and to all of you who buy the garments that we make is: Pay a fair price to us factory workers.”
Nazma Akter, President of Women’s Choice, a textile workers’ union in Bangladesh.
Nazma Akter was speaking at the launch of the Swedwatch report, A Lost Revolution?, in May 2012 where representatives from the Swedish Government, Sida, textile brand leaders in Sweden and the Bangladeshi textile industry met to discuss the findings of the report. Women make up 80 per cent of the three million workers in the garment industry in Bangladesh. A Lost Revolution? shows how the garment industry in Bangladesh underwent rapid growth on the back of human rights violations brought on by low wages and long working hours. Poverty, malnutrition, prolonged separation from their children and slum housing is the grim reality for the majority of textile workers in Bangladesh.
The report follows on from the role of Swedwatch as a watchdog and whistleblower on the activities of Swedish industry in developing countries and their impact on the environment and human rights. The seminar accompanying the report represents a change of approach for Swedwatch that reflects the rapid growth in the power of corporations.
“Today, fifty one of the hundred largest economies in the world are corporations. This increase in power has naturally led to more private sector responsibility, something that not only poses a threat but also opens a window of opportunity. Our aim is poverty reduction. In order to achieve this, our research should work in harness with the private sector to enable it to modify its ways of operating,” says Viveka Risberg, Director of Swedwatch.
Swedwatch seeks to minimise the negative footprint of businesses with funding from the seven member organisations, Sida’s Business for Development Programme and the EU. The aim is to contribute to poverty reduction and sustainability, and to a positive impact on the private sector through research connected to human rights and the environment. Viveka Risberg gives a graphic description of the various roles of Swedwatch:
“As a watchdog we monitor human rights and if we see any violations we blow the whistle to push companies to act according to international standards. With the lantern, we share best practices and organise seminars in order to raise the bar a bit at a time in the area of corporate social responsibility.”
When monitoring company practices Swedwatch applies internationally recognised laws, regulations, frameworks, conventions and guidelines that relate to the right to assembly, toxic waste, the use of pesticides, and child labour, etc. The international frameworks on sustainable business are under constant development. The ILO Convention on Forced Labour has been around since 1930, whereas the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were ratified as late as 2011.
The main task of Swedwatch is to produce reports. In order to safeguard the quality of the research they heavily scrutinise the sources. Reports may take up to six months to complete and, before publishing, any text relevant to a company mentioned in the report is sent to them for review. Objections or comments made by the company are published along with the report.
“Trust is our only capital and if we lose that due to poor investigative work then we also lose the possibility of changing the situation and achieving our goals, that of improving the environment and safeguarding human rights,” continues Viveka Risberg.
The reports not only have an impact on the companies they investigate but also on consumers, an important focus group. Swedish media often covers the Swedwatch reports, thus spreading the findings to a larger audience. They also hold lectures at schools, giving a younger audience the chance to discuss the importance of consumer power.
The aim may be to change business practices in developing countries but Swedwatch does not accept consultancy work or give advice to companies for reasons of integrity and independence. What they actually do is investigate a business sector or a company, write reports and give recommendations for improvements. At the end of the day they may as well, as in the case of the garment industry in Bangladesh, bring actors together to discuss ways forward.
When deciding on a theme for a report, Swedwatch examines its potential relevance and impact. The theme should be close to the consumer, be current or set some kind of precedent for an industry. Although Swedwatch does not disclose their yearly plans with Sida, or anyone else, Viveka Risberg reveals that relevant sectors to scrutinize in the near future are service sectors and public procurement.
Programme support for Swedwatch
1. Sida’s contribution to Swedwatch totals SEK 16.5 million.
2. The programme period is from January 2012 to December 2014.
3. The overall goal of the programme is to contribute to poverty reduction by minimising the negative social and environmental footprint left by the private sector and helping it to improve its positive contribution to sound growth, peace and democracy in developing and post-conflict countries.
Results in brief:
All that glitters is not gold
The report investigated the social and environmental risks involved in the supply of gold to jewellery stores in Sweden. Field studies were conducted in China and India. The report found immature supplier responsibility concerns, the origin of the gold was not traceable and there was very low awareness on responsibility issues at the stores and within the organisation. Since the report was published, four of the jewellery chains have promised improved supplier responsibility and Fair Trade Gold is now sold in Sweden.
What did your dinner eat for breakfast?
The report reveals the covert fishing behind salmon and shrimp farming, thus shedding light on the effects of forage fish production. Aquaculture farming is mainly carried out in the south, with the fish products being chiefly exported to countries in the north, resulting in less fish being consumed in poor countries. Due to the unsustainable fishing methods, catches have stagnated and even declined in some places. The Swedish Minister for Rural Affairs, Eskil Erlandsson, attended the launch. At least one of the restaurants investigated in the report, Pizza Hut, made the decision to stop serving scampi, Vapiano, who took part in the seminar, has reviewed its purchases and Coop’s grocery retail section has announced it has stopped selling tropical shrimps.
The hobby and hardware sector in China
In 2005 and 2006 Swedwatch conducted the first investigations into the hobby and hardware companies Clas Ohlson, Biltema and Jula, along with their suppliers in China. The reports revealed major shortcomings in the working conditions and environmental standards at the factories producing their products in China. On returning in 2012 Swedwatch found that Clas Ohlsson and Rusta had greatly improved on conditions and environment in their supply chains. The other two showed less satisfactory results. Compliance with the labour law have improved on the factories to some extent, but the workers still lack the right to participation.