Marking the anniversary of the landmark agreement on workers' safety

published 11-05-2017 13:19, last modified 11-05-2017 13:19
The first ever legally binding supply chain agreement to address critical building safety concerns – the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety – was signed between global trade unions and some of the world’s most powerful fashion brands four years ago. As we mark the anniversary of the Accord, Clean Clothes Campaign, one of the witness signatories, takes stock of progress made and looks to the future.
Marking the anniversary of the landmark agreement on workers' safety

Photo: Pieter van de Boogert

The Bangladesh Accord was signed in the wake of the huge death toll resulting from the collapse of the Rana Plaza building. Worldwide outrage at the failures of such a huge and profitable global industry to keep its workers safe created the pressure needed to achieve this landmark agreement.

The Accord has proved to be largely successful in driving up building safety in an industry notoriously resistant to improvement. So far, in just four years, Accord inspectors have identified over 100,000 fire, electrical and structural hazards in more than 1,800 factories. Sixty-five factories have completed all the repairs required to bring them up to Accord standards and over 400 factories have completed more than 90% of required safety renovations. There is much left to do, but there is no doubt that thousands of garment workers are now safer at work that they were four years ago.

As the Accord enters its fifth and final year, it is crucial to safeguard and build upon progress made so far.

The Accord has demonstrated that it is possible to deliver measurable and concrete improvements to workplace safety on an unprecedented scale, in a challenging environment and in a very short period of time. This success can be attributed to the Accord’s groundbreaking approach, which combines independent safety inspections carried out by qualified engineers, with the brand leverage and legal accountability required to ensure that problems are not only identified but are fixed. A programme of worker training, a rights focused complaint mechanism and support for factory-based safety committees, all of which are also obligatory, provide workers with the capacity to monitor hazards and demand change in their own workplace. Furthermore, a high level of public reporting means trade unions, civil society organisations and consumers are also able to track process at a factory and industry-wide level.

As the Accord enters its fifth and final year, it is crucial to safeguard and build upon progress made so far. Clean Clothes Campaign and three other witness signatories of the Accord recently issued a memo outlining why a second Accord is needed and how it could be strengthened. Recommendations include: the development of a mechanism to deal with anti-union violations, which are widespread in Bangladesh; the extension of the Accord to cover other parts of the supply chain, including spinning mills; payment of appropriate severance pay to workers whose factories close whilst under the scheme; increased transparency on brand-supplier relationships; and the development of a more effective mechanism for financing the necessary and expensive repairs.

Brands, employers and governments have a permanent, ongoing and collective responsibility to protect workers’ rights.

It is important to underline that brands, employers and governments have a permanent, ongoing and collective responsibility to protect workers’ rights. This responsibility is not limited to one project – it does not have an end date. While there is no intention for the Accord to continue indefinitely, its legacy must be the creation of a permanent mechanism, which guarantees that workers’ lives are not put at risk for the sake of profit.

In a world where the global economy is no longer based on nation states but on long and complex global supply chains, and where the power to effect change is located outside of normal democratic processes, any such mechanism will need to hold both ends of the supply chain responsible for its implementation. Clean Clothes Campaign hopes that all factories in Bangladesh will eventually be covered by a single institution, but international brands will always have a responsibility in ensuring any such institution is effective.

Key elements that have made this model such a success: qualified and independent staff, training and empowerment for workers, transparency, and, most importantly, enforceability.

Furthermore, to sustain the gains of the Bangladesh Accord, any future institutional arrangement must include the key elements that have made this model such a success: qualified and independent staff, training and empowerment for workers, transparency, and, most importantly, enforceability. If there is no accountability for employers who knowingly and willingly flout safety standards – either through legal or contractual sanctions – then nothing will change.

Before the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, the usual state of affairs had been “inspect and ignore” and a never-ending denial of responsibility for the consequences. Governments, brands and employers still seek to shift the blame elsewhere: onto faulty audits, price pressures, weak and sometimes corrupt governmental institutions, or greedy and unscrupulous employers. But the truth is that the Rana Plaza tragedy happened for all these reasons, and all of these things need to change.

The Accord showed beyond doubt that when everyone steps up to play their role, change really is possible.

Developing the architecture of enforcement across global supply chains is one of the biggest challenges of our time. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – the so-called Ruggie Framework – outline the obligations and tasks of parties involved in global supply chains to respect and protect human rights. However, this framework falls short of outlining a regulatory structure needed to make the obligations legally binding and sanctionable.

The Accord provides a model for how such a structure could be developed – by identifying the roles and responsibilities of each actor and ensuring that those responsibilities must be carried out. If the Accord is to have one legacy, then it should be this: it showed beyond doubt that when everyone steps up to play their role, change really is possible.

Read more: Witness signatory memo on the Bangladesh Accord