Just over a year ago, on 24 April 2013, more than 1,100 people were killed and 2,500 injured in the collapse of a garment factory at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. The victims were supplying the clothes that make their way onto our high street and which you and I wear daily without a second thought. The shock which reverberated around the world from the RanaPlaza catastrophe was genuine, but the sad truth is that the disaster revealed only the tip of an iceberg of horrific conditions and poverty pay for garment workers, not only in Bangladesh but across numerous countries.
The average monthly wage for a Bangladeshi garment worker is barely £50, yet they are increasingly being undercut by other nations where the pay is even lower, such as Cambodia or Laos. Child labour remains rife, with an ITV documentary earlier this year showing children as young as 13 being forced to work 11-hour days in order to produce clothes for UK retailers.
But despite all this, there has been a small glimmer of hope. The pressure from consumers following the disaster helped to change things a little bit for the better. Last year, more than 100 clothing retailers, including most of Britain’s leading high street brands, signed up to an Accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh. This introduced statutory safety inspections of garment factories, funds to help factory owners make their buildings safe to work in, and gave workers the right to refuse to work in an unsafe building, without loss of pay. Bangladesh has also seen a sizeable increase in its minimum wage agreed. Without concerted pressure from consumers, alongside governments and international NGOs, it is unlikely that anything like as many retailers would have signed up to the Accord.
Having seen what consumer power can do, it is surely right to continue to push for further improvements in working conditions in the clothing sector, both in Bangladesh and beyond.
There are improvements on the way for workers around the world, but there’s a long way still to go. And we must not allow the garment industry to simply export those problems to other countries. Manufacturing clothes can provide valuable, secure employment for hundreds of thousands of people, both at home and in some of the world’s poorest countries. But there is no reason why that has to mean going to work in unsafe factories, the exploitation of children or the paying of poverty wages.
I will be supporting @fash_rev. As you can see, on Fashion Revolution Day, I turned my clothes inside and showed public support for the cause. Support the cause by going to fashionrevolution.org or getting in touch with me at www.facebook.com/bilal.cwg, @bilalmahmood13.
Bilal Mahmood is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green (the seat currently held by Iain Duncan Smith). He is a lawyer and a campaigner social mobility for over ten years. He was born in Woodford Green and raised in Walthamstow, working as treasurer of the CLP there.
Trevor Phillips’ recent report worryingly pointed out that there are just 10 people from ethnic minority backgrounds among the 289 Chairman, Chief Executives and Chief Finance Officers of FTSE 100 companies.
We should and we must challenge the private sector to do better, as the Government are doing with regard to women on boards. And just as with drives to increase the representation of women in positions of responsibility, I believe that the public sector needs to set an example to the private sector.
But just as with increasing the representation of women in positions of responsibility, this Government are failing to get their own house in order when it comes to harnessing the talents of those from BAME backgrounds, and in many cases are wiping out years of progress made by the last Labour government.
Over the 3 years before the election, Labour increased ethnic minority representation within the civil service by 11%, but since 2010 this progress has been all but cancelled out, and the proportion of ethnic minority staff working at the most senior level – which includes directors and permanent secretaries – has fallen.
Even in London, which has a BAME population of some 40%, just 6% of those in the top jobs share those backgrounds, despite the fact that ethnic minorities are over-represented in entry level and intermediate positions.
This simply isn’t good enough.
We need a culture change in our civil service, away from the stuffy elitism of the past, and towards a modern, meritocratic service which attracts and promotes the best and the brightest, regardless of their background, their skin colour or their old school tie; a service which looks and thinks like the country it serves.
We can’t change that culture instantly, but we can take significant steps to achieve the critical mass required to achieve change from within.
To that end, our Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Michael Dugher set out last week how a One Nation Labour Government will ensure that the Civil Service Fast Stream, which selects outstanding candidates for rapid promotion through the ranks, will be required to ensure that its annual intake comprises at least 18% of successful candidates from BAME backgrounds.
We’ll also expand internship opportunities, successful completion of which will improve the young person’s chances of getting on to the Fast Stream.
These actions alone will mean that hundreds more able people from BAME backgrounds will be in positions of power and influence in the civil service by the end of the next Parliament.
This isn’t about tokenism. We make these arguments because we know that our public institutions – just like our businesses - work better and are more responsive if they reflect and embrace the talents of the communities and the country that they serve.
Of course, it’s only a start, and there’s a great deal more a future Labour government will need to do to shatter the glass ceilings which remain in the workplace, and particularly to open up the professions and well paid jobs to those from non-white, non-privileged backgrounds.
These issues – and many more - are at the heart of Labour’s consultation on a new One Nation Race Equality Strategy, and I hope everyone reading this will contribute their views to this important process, and help shape Labour’s policies in this area ahead of next year’s election.
But it’s an important start nonetheless, and one which demonstrates that only a One Nation Labour Government can and will deliver the changes we need to see to make our society a much fairer and more prosperous one for everyone – not just those at the top.
Sharon Hodgson MP is Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, and represents the constituency of Washington and Sunderland West.
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