As the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was set to expire on Monday, a flurry of last-minute activity will likely result in a three-month extension.
The extension is pending approval from the member brands and expected to crystallize in the next 10 days, according to global union representatives.
Now based in the Netherlands, the Accord in its current form is a legally binding agreement between more than 200 global brands and retailers as well as the UNI and IndustriALL global unions, originally birthed in the wake of the deadly 2013 Rana Plaza disaster.
“UNI Global Union, IndustriALL Global Union, and a negotiating committee representing leading fashion brands are pleased to announce that they have reached a tentative agreement to extend the current commitments of the 2018 Accord for three months as negotiations continue,” Alke Boessinger, deputy general secretary, UNI Global Union, said on Monday, adding that the “interim agreement must still be signed by the individual brands.”
“We are writing to all the brands that have signed the Accord today asking them to sign within the next 10 days,” Boessinger said. “We are expecting to get in the first ones within the next couple of days.”
Added Christy Hoffman, general secretary, UNI Global Union: “We expect that a large number will very quickly sign the extension agreement based upon reports that we have received.”
In the past two weeks, global unions IndustriAll and UNI made clear that they would pull out of the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) in Bangladesh if the global brands don’t sign on to extend the Accord. Their statement earlier in May said this would “strip away any credibility of the RSC as an effective worker safety organization.”
RSC, now a year old, has been mandated to carry out the work of Accord in Bangladesh, having inherited the staff, offices and the 1,700 factories working with the mostly European brands that are members of the Accord.
However, not everyone believes that renewing the Accord is the best way forward.
The RSC board consists of six manufacturers, six union representatives and six brand representatives—a fair representation according to local industry analysts who note that the global unions already have a voice, and as a part of RSC are ensuring a tripartite balance for worker safety.
“It’s very disturbing,” said Rubana Huq, former president of the Bangladesh garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) referring to the multitude of references that Bangladesh is still incapable of managing its industry and needs hand holding and supervision from the outside.
“It’s not nice to hear the same level of industry bashing going on at a national and international level,” Huq said.
Huq’s point that global unions are already involved in the RSC—and noting their importance —is echoing across the industry in Bangladesh.
The global unions are already active in RSC, and many observers on the ground don’t see why the Accord foundation has to watch over it. “This is not a self-monitoring organization—there are three parties who are monitoring it,” Huq said.
“We should all give an open call for the world to see what the RSC has done in the last couple of months and to what extent the Accord foundation is participating. Scheduling, inspections, everything has been done by RSC,” she continued. “So why is it we always talk about supervision from somebody?”
Many of the global brands have also been discussing setting new frameworks for the future, not necessarily involving the Accord, and in finding more unity in systems that work with other brands that are not represented, including the mostly North American labels that worked in Bangladesh for five years under the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.
These have not been included in the RSC as of now.
Many brands too have shown a reluctance to sign into another round of the Accord—reportedly only two have made clear their intent, including UK retailer Asos and German retailer Tchibo, global unions have said. Joe Fresh and Zeeman have also voiced support for the agreement.
As arguments escalate from both sides, the way forward is expected to emerge in the next few months, particularly in terms of the Accord replicating the progress that Pakistan, India and other countries have made.
Additional reporting by Jasmin Malik Chua.