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Bangladesh Accord Gets Extension, But Fears by Worker Groups Remain

The Accord for Fire and Building in Safety in Bangladesh has received a last-minute reprieve, extending its time in the South Asian country by 281 days.

Last Sunday, the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) reached earlier this month between the Bangladesh Accord Steering Committee and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), allowing the watershed agreement to function until a new institution, known as the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council, takes over in 2020.

But leaders of several garment workers’ unions said they weren’t consulted on the arrangement, which they fear may weaken the Accord’s independence and cede more power to factory owners.

“This deal is sure to compromise the safety and security of garment workers given there will be no independent decision-making by the Accord,” Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, told Reuters. “This was framed without any discussion with labor unions.”

Created in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, which killed 1,138 people and injured thousands more, the Accord legally committed 200 of the world’s leading brands and retailers to improving conditions in 1,700-plus factories across Bangladesh.

Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), a global consortium of workers’ rights groups and labor unions, cited the agreed presence but ambiguous function of a “BGMEA unit” within the Accord office as a source of concern.

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“According to the MoU, factories’ Corrective Action Plans will be evaluated in collaboration with this unit,” Christie Miedema, campaign and outreach coordinator at the CCC, wrote in a news release. “This raises questions about employers’ influence over the independent decision-making processes of Accord staff. Furthermore, a visible employers’ presence inside the Accord office might negatively impact the willingness of workers to rely on its complaint mechanism, one of the most important features of the Accord.”

While the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which consisted of mostly American companies like Walmart, has already ceased operations, the Accord had requested more time to complete its remediation of the facilities under its charge, especially after a spate of industrial accidents cast doubt over the readiness of national inspection bodies to replace it.

The CCC had dubbed Nirapon, a self-regulating organization taking over some of the departing Alliance’s duties, a “grossly inadequate alternative,” since the group itself admits on its website that it will neither publicly identify factories that fall short of its standards, nor will it have the authority to require remediation in factories with safety violations or suspend factories that fail to do so.

But government officials say they will continue to work toward ensuring worker safety even after the Accord leaves.

“There will be no lapses…this is a question of existence,” Mohammad Mofizul Islam, a commerce ministry official, told Reuters.

Bangladesh is the second-largest garment exporter after China. Accounting for 80 percent of the country’s export earnings, the $30 billion garment sector employs 4 million people and produces clothing for some of the biggest retailers in the world, including H&M, Uniqlo and Zara.