“We can’t be a rubber stamp for an industry-brand partnership without real accountability and robust oversight,” Christy Hoffman, UNI Global’s general secretary, said in a statement about the decision earlier this month.
Without the element of enforcement, some people in the industry believe brands and factories will simply fall back into their old habits of prioritising speed and cost of production over worker safety.
“If the Accord expires, there is a risk that the current health and safety standards will not be upheld and dramatically compromised,” Jude Kingston, founder and director of Mind Your Fashion, told Inside Retail.
“There is a very real risk of more injury and death.”
But factories say this fear is unfounded.
“This should be crystal clear to all parties that we are committed to a safe and secure industry for our workers, for the owners and for the brands who are sourcing from Bangladesh,” the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) wrote in response to an article The Guardian published about the end of the Accord in April.
With less than a week until the Accord expires, here’s what global brands and retailers need to know about the past and future of garment worker safety in Bangladesh.
What is the Bangladesh Accord?
The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was created after the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when a building housing five garment factories collapsed and killed more than 1100 workers and injured more than 2000.
Cracks in the exterior were visible before the collapse, but while other tenants chose to evacuate the building, the garment factories refused to close and forced workers to come in the day Rana Plaza fell.
The building was later found to have been built on unstable land, without the proper permissions and with sub-par materials. But despite the fact that some of the brands sourcing from the factories had conducted audits, these safety issues were never picked up.
To prevent this from ever happening again, brands and retailers joined forces with IndustriALL and UNI Global to create the Bangladesh Accord, a legally-binding agreement to protect garment workers by ensuring factories are free from fire, electrical and structural hazards.
How does the Bangladesh Accord work?
Under the Accord, signatory brands and retailers are required to disclose all of the RMG (ready-made garment) factories they use in Bangladesh. These factories are then independently inspected by qualified engineers, and if any safety hazards are found, they must be addressed.
In some cases, brands are required to help factories cover the cost of renovations, and if they refuse, they can be taken to court. If factories refuse to make the necessary changes, signatory brands and retailers are forbidden from working with them.
Besides independent inspections, the Accord also includes safety training for garment workers and a confidential complaints mechanism.
According to IndustriALL, over 118,500 fire, electrical, and structural hazards were identified during the inspection of 1,800 factories supplying over 200 brands in the first five years of the Accord. Eighty-three percent of the hazards had been remediated by February 2018.
Why is the Bangladesh Accord set to expire?
The Bangladesh Accord created in 2013 was a five-year agreement. Before it expired on May 31, 2018, nearly 200 brands and retailers signed onto the 2018 Transition Accord, which extended the agreement for another three years. This is what’s set to expire on May 31, 2021.
But in the meantime, a new organisation has taken over day-to-day running of the Accord — the RSC. Unlike the previous governing body, which was made up of an equal number of signatory brands and retailers and trade union representatives, with a neutral chairperson provided by the International Labour Organisation, the RSC gives factory owners an equal seat at the table.
And now, perhaps due to this new power dynamic, brands are refusing to sign another Accord to protect worker safety. Instead, they’re proposing an alternate framework that would not be legally binding.
But the unions have dismissed that idea as a return to the “failed system of self-monitoring” that was in place prior to the Rana Plaza disaster.
“Now brands have a simple choice to make — recommit to a binding agreement with the global trade unions that will continue making factories safe in Bangladesh — or turn their backs on millions of garment workers in their supply chains and return to the failed system of self-monitoring,” Hoffman and Valter Sanches, IndustriALL’s general secretary, wrote in a joint article last month.
It should be noted that the RSC and Bangladesh Government don’t recognise the Transition Accord as a legitimate extension of the original Bangladesh Accord that expired in 2018.
What do factories have to say?
Factories’ key criticism of the proposal for a new binding agreement is that it’s simply unnecessary.
“The RSC, which was set up to carry forward the achievements made by the Accord on workplace safety in Bangladesh, is governed by an equal number of representatives from brands, manufacturers and trade unions,” the BGMEA wrote in its response to The Guardian article.
“All policies and procedures developed by the Accord have been carried over to the RSC. In addition, the RSC is a consensus-based decision-making body without any majority voting.”
According to the BGMEA, the RSC has conducted 1821 inspections in 904 factories since September 2020 and sped up the remediation process for factories with safety hazards.
On top of this, the BGMEA is “vigorously promoting” social dialogue in its factories and forming mandatory safety committees.
“Many more initiatives are under consideration to make our manufacturing process transparent, accountable, and responsible,” it wrote.
What will happen next?
If brands don’t sign a new, binding agreement before May 31, IndustriALL, UNI Global and their local affiliates will pull out of the RSC on June 1, leaving the organisation without any garment worker representation and dealing a serious blow to its credibility.
But even with this threat, factories don’t seem interested in compromise.
“We do not recogni[s]e the Transition Accord and neither does the Government of Bangladesh, which will expire on 31 May 2021,” the BGMEA wrote.
“Any other extension or new Accord will similarly not be recogni[s]ed and will not be a part of any initiative related to Bangladesh safety looking forward.”
In the end, it could come down, once again, to consumer pressure, according to Kingston.
“There is so much awareness and so many voices that will make this virtually impossible to happen,” she said about the possibility of the Accord ending next week.
“Brands have an obligation to be socially and ethically responsible with sourcing and manufacturing of clothing for the fashion industry.”