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Minister Ploumen on covenant on sustainable textiles and clothing

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interview Minister Ploumen

In an exclusive interview with CNV, Minister Ploumen of Foreign Trade and Development,  about the importance of the Covenant Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, the Minister highlights the role of trade unionists and works council members to improve working conditions in the garment sector in developing countries

Minister Ploumen on Dutch CSR Covenant Garment and textile sector

Minister Ploumen: “Employers should inform customers about fair clothing”

Protection against child labour. Protection against forced labour. Establishment of a minimum living wage. These are only a few of the objectives described in the Covenant on Sustainable Textiles and Clothing,  which is drawn up by trade organisations, trade unions, civil society organisations, and the national government together. Signing of the covenant is scheduled for June 2016. One of the conditions is that at least 35 companies in the clothing and textile sector are willing to commit themselves to the covenant. In an interview with CNV Internationaal, Minister Lilianne Ploumen (Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation) discusses the importance of the Covenant on Sustainable Clothing and Textiles.

Why do you believe it is important to establish this covenant?

"First of all, we need to improve the working conditions of all those employees in the producing countries. We have made agreements on safe factories, decent wages and clean production processes. But this is also about trade union freedom and the fight against child labour. We all remember the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, a building that housed various clothing factories, among other facilities. A total of 1100 people lost their lives in that disaster. This was an eye-opener for many people. Nobody wants workers to die when they're sewing a shirt. Many things have changed since then. This covenant is one of the outcomes. Companies that participate, commit themselves to mapping all possible risks, all the way from picking the cotton up to the cash register. Are there any violations of human rights, or violations of labour laws or is there environmental damage? If so, they must address these issues. This covenant is the first of its kind.

All important parties are involved: the clothing sector, trade unions, civil society organisations and the government. It is the first time such agreements on international corporate responsibility (ICSR) have been made within the Social and Economic Council [SER]. The negotiators have really done some ground-breaking work, and set the bar high for other future ICSR covenants. I expect other sectors to soon follow suit."

What role do you envision for CNV (and the trade unions in the producing countries), in the implementation of the agreements laid down in the covenant?

"CNV is one of the parties that committed itself to the covenant, along with trade organisations from the clothing sector, FNV, and civil society organisations such as UNICEF and Hivos. Because CNV is a partner in negotiations, they can exert influence. The organisations and parties support one another, but they also keep each other focussed. CNV, and FNV as well, has been supporting activities of trade unions in developing countries for years, including those in the clothing and textile industry.

Together with local partner organisations, they strive for improvement of the working conditions, because the right to decent work applies to everybody. Thanks to this covenant, trade unions will connect clothing and textile producers with local trade unions. If necessary, they will make employees and trade unions in the producing countries aware of their rights, and of the procedure for filing a complaint against a company or organisation. And the trade unions themselves will establish concrete projects for addressing specific issues with the companies."

What are the effects of the covenant for the Dutch employees in the clothing and textile sector?

"The effects will gradually increase. I expect shops to start selling more fair and sustainable clothing and textiles. This also applies to clothing of consumers that are not specifically aware of sustainability. Employees of clothing and textile businesses will increasingly have to be able to sufficiently answer customer queries on fair and sustainable clothing. We will not introduce a new quality mark, but a new website will be launched that lists the names of all participating businesses.

Additionally, we agreed that all companies will report themselves on their efforts and performances from the third year onwards. This is based on the idea that consumers will consider such performances in their choice for certain clothing brands or certain shops. I believe that employees will be confronted with more critical customers. So it is vital that employers inform them well on the covenant."

Do you believe that there are parts of the covenant that deserve more attention?

"Things could always go quicker, but I am aware that this is a complex industry. There are many links between the stage of picking cotton and that of payment at the cash register. This involves thousands of facilities in dozens of countries. I believe this covenant is a good outcome supported by many parties. The main thing now is to get to work. This applies to the clothing sector, but also to a 'watchdog' like CNV. I do regret the fact that the Clean Clothes Campaign decided to pull out for the time being at the last moment. They'd worked hard for months, and showed great commitment. I understand that the CCC would have liked to see concrete commitments by individual Dutch companies to an increase of wages toward a minimum living wage, at the launch of the covenant. But it just was not possible.

However, the covenant is aimed at the establishment of minimal living wages by 2020. Obviously, I'd rather have seen them stay on board. I have also learned that you can't always get what you want at once - often, it is a matter of taking small steps. But this covenant is a big step forward."

Can individual CNV members do anything to support the covenant in practice?

"CNV has been cooperating with FairWearFoundation for some time on improvements in the clothing factories. In this cooperation the focus is mainly on strengthening the trade unions, minimum living wages, and fighting against violence against women. In the past, CNV members joined Cambodian trade unions in solidarity campaigns for higher wages in the clothing sector. I expect that CNV informs its members well about the possibilities within the partnership programme. Furthermore, many trade union members are also member of a works council. The works council is the ideal institute for raising the issue of signing the covenant with the employer. And finally, I would like to say: Be aware of what you buy!

Although it will become easier to purchase fair clothing, consumers themselves will still be responsible. So when you're shopping for a shirt or a tea towel, always check whether it has been produced in compliance with the rules for fair and sustainable clothing and textiles. I do that myself as well. After all: shouldn't trade union members support employees all over the world?"

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