The Bangladesh garment industry has a long history of factory incidents. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, created after the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013, has made a real change by making factories safer. The current agreement will run out by the end of May 2021. Action is needed to protect progress made for workplace safety.
“The Accord is very important for workplace safety. The Accord works independently and neutrally and has earned a good reputation and credibility, abroad and among workers. The Accord ensures the safety of the workplace for workers.”
What is the problem?
Many garment brands have their clothes made in factories in Bangladesh. Until eight years ago, a lot of these factories were no more than death traps. The Bangladesh Accord, in which around 200 brands participate, has since 2013 been working to make those factories into safe workplaces. Since its establishment in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, the Bangladesh Accord has brought great progress to the safety situation for over 2 million garment workers in Bangladesh, but this progress needs to be protected.
The Bangladesh Accord is so successful because it is a binding agreement that has real punishments for brands, retailers, and factories who do not take enough action. Unions take up half of the seats in the Accord's governance structures and can hold brands accountable. But the agreement that makes this kind of legal action possible will run out in May 2021, and there is no sign of a new agreement yet. An international binding agreement will have to be signed to keep the Accord's most effective elements in place, and can also be used to ensure that eventually other countries will be covered by a similar programme.
Some brands and retailers have however told us that they prefer to limit their activities to Bangladesh and to put their trust in the new national body that was established last year in which worker representatives hold only hold one third, instead of half of the governance seats. This means that they backtrack on earlier promises to continue to safeguard the binding element of the Accord in an international agreement. We have our concerns and keep on monitoring the functioning of this new body and firmly believe that it will not be able to uphold the standards of the previous Accord programme without an international binding agreement. By choosing this national focus, brands are denying workers and their representatives the power to hold brands legally accountable for their promises and are taking away the possibility of workers in other countries with death trap factories, such as Pakistan, to expect similar protection in the near future.
Who needs to act?
Signatories to the Accord need to negotiate a new international legally binding agreement with the unions, in order to protect the progress made by the Accord in the past years. Brands and retailers have been very positive about the achievements of the Accord, they cannot certainly leave their workers to the mercy of voluntary programmes again.
- Tweet your support for the Accord and call upon brands to take action.
- E-mail brands to tell them to take action now.
- On social media share this video showing why the work of the Accord is an example for how to make change in the garment industry, using the hashtags #protectprogress and #RanaPlazaNeverAgain.
When in 2013 the Rana Plaza building collapsed - killing 1,134 workers - it was clear that something nee
ded to change to address the notoriously unsafe Bangladesh garment industry. Only a few weeks later the Bangladesh Safety Accord was launched. In the past few years, the Accord has carried out inspections, overseen repairs and trained workers in the field of safety covering over 1,600 factories supplying more than 200 brands.
The Accord is a binding instrument initiated by Bangladeshi trade unions and Global Union Federations together with labour rights groups. The first Accord, which had a mandate for five years, has been signed by over 200 global fashion brands and retailers, Bangladeshi trade unions and Global Union Federations. Clean Clothes Campaign is one of the four witness signatories. The ILO (International Labor Organisation) functions as neutral chair.
The Accord requires the signatory brands to disclose who their supplier factories are. The Accord also requires independent building inspections on fire, electrical and structural safety, worker rights trainings, and a long-overdue review of safety standards.
Fashion brands, together with their supplier factory, are responsible to compensate the workers during any closure for remediation and maintenance resulting from the inspections. The inspections are carried out by safety inspectors from international firms, and Bangladesh engineers. The Accord is unique in being supported by all key labour rights stakeholders in Bangladesh and internationally, and being legally binding. The reports of the Accord's inspections along with their Corrective Action Plans are published on the Accord website.
As witness signatories to the Accord we keep a close watch on its work. We are involved in its governance but are also not afraid to speak out when needed. In the second half of 2015 the four Accord witness signatories checked the progress of H&M's most trusted suppliers. The result was shocking: most supplier factories were far behind schedule in repairing the safety defects that Accord inspectors found. Follow up research in January 2016 and May 2016 showed some progress, but still left the majority of these key suppliers without safe fire exits. To increase pressure on H&M we held an international day of action, on which people in over 40 cities worldwide made their voices heard.
When in June 2017 a follow-up programme to the first Accord was announced, the 2018 Transition Accord, this was in recognition that while laudable progress toward safety was achieved since May 2013 much remains to be done to achieve a safe garment industry in Bangladesh. That is why the Agreement mandated a three or possible four year term commencing 1 June 2018. In October 2017 an agreement was reached between the Ministries of Commerce and Labour, the employers' organization BGMEA, and 2018 Transition Accord signatory representatives about a process to regulate a transition to national oversight structures according to rigorous standards. We campaigned hard to convince brands to sign on to this new programme, summing up our arguments in this blog, and this background memo. Almost 200 brands did, including new garment brands and home textile providers.
This first Accord programme ended in May 2018. A new Transition Accord took over, but under difficult circumstances. The government and employers’ organization stated that they no longer needed the Accord. We stressed that there is no other credible way to keep workers in Bangladesh safe. Many worker representatives, brands and other stakeholders joined us in our support for the continuation of the Accord.
The frequent fires that continued to happen in Bangladesh showed that contrary to what the government and factory owners say, national inspection agencies in Bangladesh are not yet ready to take over the work of the Accord. They showed cases of broken promises, unsafe buildings, and factories deemed too dangerous to produce in that continued to operate. Furthermore a closer look at the public data of the national inspection bodies themselves showed many inconsistencies and dangerous lapses. As witness signatories to the Accord we closely follow factory safety in Bangladesh and the operations of the Accord.
Eventually, in 2019 a Memorandum of Understanding was reached between the employers’ organization BGMEA and the Accord. We have our concerns about this agreement especially as in 2020 it was decided to continue on the original time path for transitioning work on the ground to the newly establish RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), despite the fact that the pandemic made normal preparations impossible. We have kept on closely monitoring the RSC over the past months.
The binding and enforceable character of the programme carried out by the RSC, is only safeguarded because brands and retailers are also still signatory of the 2018 Transition Accord, together with the unions, who can use this agreement to hold brands to account. This agreement however runs out on 31 May 2021. To prevent the RSC from becoming yet another industry-led voluntary mechanism, the brands and retailers who so proudly signed the Accord before, must make sure to lay their commitments down in writing again: in a new international legally binding agreement. Although all Accord signatories agreed early in 2020 to a "new agreement between unions and brands to be negotiated with a view for the Accord safety programme to be expanded to Pakistan," now brands are coming back to us, saying that they want to limit the work to Bangladesh and shying away from signing a new international agreement with the unions. We can't allow the major achievement that came out of the horrible tragedy of the Rana Plaza collapse to backslide, or to keep this successful programme away from workers in countries such as Pakistan who have been asking for a meaningful safety system. Brands and retailers must act now to protect progress and ensure an incident like Rana Plaza can never happen again.