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UN expert body urges international brands to work with Bangladesh to prevent another garment disaster

GENEVA (8 May 2013) – A United Nations expert group today urged international clothing brands not to disengage from Bangladesh, but to work together with the government, international organizations, and civil society to address working conditions in the garment sector.

The UN Working Group on business and human rights stressed that such commitment is crucial to prevent another disaster like the Rana Plaza collapse, where more than 780 people, most of whom were young, female garment workers, have now been confirmed dead. The garment industry employs some 3-5 million workers in the country.

“The international brands sourcing from Bangladesh have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence to identify and address their own impacts on human rights,” said Pavel Sulyandziga, who currently heads the five-strong expert group. “If they are linked with negative impacts on human rights through their suppliers, they have the responsibility to exercise their leverage as buyers to try to effect change.”

In that regard, the expert urged the international garment sector to implement the UN Guiding Principles* on Business and Human Rights, which clarify the responsibilities of both States and business for addressing human rights impacts from business related activities.

“International clothing supply chains are increasingly complex and addressing systemic issues is not an easy task, but the scale of the efforts must be commensurate with the challenge,” Mr. Sulyandziga said.

The human rights expert noted that, according to reports, several of the factories operating in the building had been audited in the past. However, it appears that these audits either overlooked or excluded altogether the structural problems with the building. “In other words, a pure audit-based approach is insufficient to address systemic issues,” he underscored.

“We strongly urge international clothing brands sourcing from Bangladesh to address human rights risks in their supply chains with the involvement of workers, other relevant stakeholders, and human rights experts, and to share publicly what they are doing to mitigate their risks,” Mr. Sulyandziga said. He also urged brands to address how buyer behaviour and pricing strategies may prevent investments in safer factories and living wages for workers.

“Human rights due diligence helps business understand better their impact on human rights throughout their value chains,” the expert said. “The UN Guiding Principles also spell out what to do when risks are discovered: identify your leverage and ability to work in partnership with other businesses, local authorities, workers and civil society to work towards sustainable solutions.”

The Working Group also stressed that the government of Bangladesh has the duty to protect human rights from violations by business actors, and that it must take action to ensure a thorough investigation of how the Rana Plaza factories were allowed to operate, bring those responsible to account, ensure reparations for victims, and take strong action to improve protection for workers’ rights.

The expert body welcomed the International Labour Organization and tripartite partners’ agreement on an action plan to improve labour rights and safety in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy, and commended all partners for this agreement.

The UN Working Group on business and human rights expressed its deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy, recalling that this accident took place just five months after the Tazreen factory fire, where more than 100 workers lost their lives, and that poor working conditions and safety standards have been documented in research over the years, without standards having improved significantly.

The Working Group was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2011. The five members are Mr. Michael Addo, Ms. Alexandra Guáqueta, Ms. Margaret Jungk, Mr. Puvan Selvanathan and Mr. Pavel Sulyandziga (current Chairperson-Rapporteur). The Working Group is independent from any government or organization. It reports to the Human Rights Council and to the UN General Assembly. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Business/Pages/Tools.aspx

(*) Check the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Business/Pages/Tools.aspx

For additional information and media requests please contact Lene Wendland (+41 22 928 9299 / lwendland@ohchr.org) or write to wg-business@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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