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August 09, 2014

Investors Pressure Ralph Lauren on Human Rights
    by Robert Kropp

Members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility attend annual shareowner meeting of Ralph Lauren to support a resolution filed by the AFL-CIO requesting that the company conduct a human rights risk assessment.

SocialFunds.com -- In April, 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring more than 2,500. The tragedy is a reminder to corporations of their responsibility to monitor human rights conditions in their supply chains, and address adverse effects when they are discovered.

One year after the tragedy, a coalition of 170 investors called for the implementation of "systemic reforms that will ensure worker safety and welfare, and to adopt zero tolerance policies on global supply chain abuses."

"Acting alone, companies can and do bring about meaningful and positive changes in human rights in the countries where they source and manufacture,” the investors stated. “But when faced with intransigence of the type we have historically seen in Bangladesh on worker safety issues, we are convinced that systemic change will only occur when companies take action together."

Most of the major clothing retailers in developed nations source garments from factories in Bangladesh, and in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy many have joined the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement to ensure safe working conditions in the nation's garment industry. Thus far over 180 companies from 20 countries have signed the Accord.

One prominent company that has not signed the Accord is Ralph Lauren; instead, management told shareowners at its recent annual general meeting that “they prefer to ‘go it alone.’”

At the meeting, while unions and religious organizations rallied outside, the AFL-CIO Reserve Fund introduced a resolution calling on Ralph Lauren to conduct a human rights assessment. Pointing out that by the company’s own account more than 98% of its products are manufactured outside the US, the resolution goes on to state, “This extensive supply chain network can expose Ralph Lauren to human rights risks through the products that it produces.”

The resolution was presented by Nazma Akter, a former garment worker in Bangladesh who has since become a leader of that country’s worker rights movement. “There are over 4,000 garment factories in Bangladesh,” Akter said. “So far, 1,600 are covered by the accord and workers in these are better protected. Workers have a union at only 160 of those thousands of factories. Workers at factories covered by the Accord and those who have a union could have refused to enter Rana Plaza when they saw cracks. Workers must have Freedom of Association to protect themselves and claim their full human rights.”

“Why has a company that has always stood for the highest quality not joined the accord?” she asked.

Present at the demonstration outside the meeting was Rev. David Schilling of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR).

“The Accord on Fire and Building Safety is the best solution to help prevent future workplace disasters in Bangladesh and to foster a culture of compliance and respect for international human rights norms,” he said. “The Accord guarantees that global brands and retailers can source apparel manufactured in factories with adequate health and safety standards and where international labor rights are respected.”

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