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Fashion brand slammed for safety U-turn

Discount retailer Best and Less was founded in 1965. Picture: Supplied
Discount retailer Best and Less was founded in 1965. Picture: Supplied

Australian discount retailer Best and Less is under fire for not signing an international safety accord on factory safety despite indicating it would do so last year on the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh.

Best and Less sources its product in part from Bangladeshi factories, and the accord, which was sparked by the Rana Plaza tragedy in which more than 1100 garment workers lost their lives in a factory collapse, looks to raise safety standards for workers in South Asia’s garment industry.

ActionAid Australia, a women’s rights organisation, claimed the company had moved towards signing the accord but had now backtracked.

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ActionAid Bangladesh country director Farah Kabir said she was “incredibly disappointed” by the change in heart and claimed it put female garment workers at risk.

“I’ve seen first hand how basic safety measures like smoke alarms and making sure fire exits are clear in factories saves the lives of women garment workers making clothes that Australians wear,” she said.

Collapsed Building Site As Garment Workers Protest
Rescue workers and volunteers search by hand for victims in the debris of the collapsed Rana Plaza building the day after the building collapsed. Picture: Jeff Holt / Bloomberg via Getty Images

“If all Australian clothing retailers signed up to the accord, it would support a system that secures the safety of all garment workers in factories in Bangladesh.

“This would create a level playing field and no retailer would get an advantage by sourcing cheaper garments from unsafe factories.

“Best and Less needs to do the right thing and sign the accord for workers so Australian shoppers can be assured the clothes they are buying aren’t putting workers’ lives at risk.”

The accord is a legally binding agreement between global fashion brands and trade unions to improve workplace health and safety in the textile industry.

ActionAid claims Best and Less continues to source product from factories in Bangladesh that do not meet the accord’s standards.

In the 10 years since Rana Plaza, safety inspectors with the accord had conducted nearly 56,000 inspections across more than 2400 garment factories in Bangladesh, flagging 170,000 health and safety issues, ActionAid said.

Best and Less was not involved or connected to the Rana Plaza collapse.

Other big retail brands such as Just Jeans, Cotton On, Kmart, Country Road, The Iconic, Witchery, Jay Jays and Big W have signed the accord, along with more than 100 international fashion brands.

KMART STOCK
Major brands such as Kmart have signed on to the accord on factory safety. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Dean Martin

ActionAid Australia executive director Michelle Higelin said Best and Less’ decision not to sign up to the accord meant the company was “freeloading” on the investments into safety from its competitors.

“Other Australian brands like Big W, Cotton On, and Kmart use the same factories as Best and Less, and they are paying for safety improvements as part of their accord obligations.

“Effectively, by failing to sign the accord, Best and Less are benefiting from these safety repairs and freeriding off their competitors.”

A Best and Less spokeswoman told NCA NewsWire that the company took ethical sourcing “very seriously” and its approach was “consistent with the endeavours of the accord”.

“While the accord’s jurisdiction is levelled at Bangladesh and Pakistan, our measures apply across all our suppliers no matter their location,” the spokeswoman said.

Discount retailer Best and Less says it maintains a ‘stringent ethical sourcing code’. Picture: Supplied
Discount retailer Best and Less says it maintains a ‘stringent ethical sourcing code’. Picture: Supplied

“Every partner factory is fully audited by a globally recognised third party across several parameters, including environmental, social, ethical and safety.

“Our 24-hour worker hotline, which is also operated by a third party, enables factory staff to personally share feedback on conditions of their working experience.

“We maintain a stringent ethical sourcing code, release an annual modern slavery report and work collaboratively with our trusted suppliers, which include regular site visits to establish a fair pricing model that also maintains an offering our customers depend on.”

The spokeswoman said the company relied on the same audit organisations used by US behemoths Walmart and Disney, including BSCI, QIMA and Sedex.

The company states the majority of its products are produced in China, followed by Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Cambodia.

“We ban the use of cotton from Uzbekistan and working with factories in the (Chinese) province of Xinjiang as they don’t comply with our code in human rights,” the company states in its corporate social responsibility statement.

Best and Less was formerly an ASX listed company, but BBRC took it over in the middle of 2023.