Apparel brands and labor unions reached a deal on Wednesday for a tentative agreement that will maintain and continue the work of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh while expanding it to other garment-producing countries.
Like its predecessor, the new International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry will be legally binding. Slated for two years to begin with, it goes into effect on Sept. 1, one day after a three-month extension of the Transition Accord is set to expire. The work of the International Accord will be overseen by the Accord Secretariat, a fully independent body invested with the authority to verify and enforce brand compliance. Critically, only brands that sign this new agreement will be able to partake in services from the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC) in Bangladesh, the tripartite national body that has taken over the monitoring and inspection responsibilities of the Accord in the country.
“This agreement will begin the long-awaited expansion of this model that holds brands legally accountable to other countries where workers’ lives continue to be at risk,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of labor unions and nonprofits. “In many of these countries, unions and labor rights organizations have been asking for effective action in the field of workplace safety for years. We are happy this agreement will now become truly international and look forward to it being expanded soon to the countries where the need is highest and the demand is greatest.”
As its name implies, the scope of the International Accord is broader, covering general health and safety rather than fire and building safety alone. The program will begin in earnest in Bangladesh, where the first Accord emerged in the aftermath of the 2013 collapse of the multi-factory Rana Plaza complex, which killed 1,134 garment workers and injured scores more. Signatories will commit to extending those efforts to at least one other country within the first two years, with feasibility studies commencing immediately after signing. The agreement will also address human-rights due diligence, a growing liability concern for businesses as supply-chain legislation in the European Union and elsewhere ramps up.
“This International Accord is an important victory towards making the textile and garment industry safe and sustainable,” said Valter Sanches, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union. “The agreement maintains the legally binding provision for companies and most importantly the scope has been expanded to other countries and other provisions, encompassing general health and safety. Now, the textile and garment companies must show their commitment and sign the renewed International Accord.”
To say that the negotiation process has been long and arduous would be an understatement. As talks heated up over the summer, several of the Accord’s earliest champions threw their support not behind a renewed agreement but rather the RSC, drawing criticism from labor organizations for failing to use their “considerable power to ensure that advances on supply chain factory safety are maintained” and endangering workers’ lives as a result. In May, IndustriALL Global Union and UNI quit the RSC, citing its ineffectiveness as a worker-safety organization because of its lack of enforceability, individual brand accountability and independent monitoring. They rejoined after the three-month extension for the Accord was inked.
While labor campaigners told Sourcing Journal that a “first wave” of names will be announced at the International Accord’s launch next week, several of the Bangladesh Accord’s nearly 200 original, mostly European signatories, including Bestseller, C&A, H&M and Zara owner Inditex, confirmed their participation. (Whether American companies such as Gap and Walmart, which flocked to the voluntary—and some say watered-down—Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, now known as Nirapon, will climb aboard is a big question.)
“As one of the first signatories of the original Accord on Fire and Building Safety, Inditex is delighted to be one of the brands leading the formation of this new agreement,” an Inditex spokesperson said. “This will allow the industry to build globally on the progress made in Bangladesh, and will deliver new commitments to the safety of workers across the supply chain.”
Martijn van der Zee, chief merchandise and sourcing officer at the C&A, said that signing the agreement underlines the Belgian-Dutch-German retailer’s “commitment to working with labor unions and the industry to create lasting change in fire and building safety in Bangladesh.”
H&M, which initially promoted the RSC—and by extension self-regulation—as an alternative, appeared to swerve at the final minute.
“For me, living and working in Bangladesh, it has been evident what remarkable change the textile industry has gone through thanks to the Accord,” said Masarrat Quader, the Swedish retailer’s public affairs and stakeholder engagement manager. “I’m proud to have been a part of fruitful and important discussions with other brands and trade unions leading up to this ground-breaking agreement. I’m convinced it will not only honor all the great work being done so far but also mean a significant step forward with regards to safeguarding the work environment in the industry.”
Bestseller, too, said it looks forward to being “part of this collective effort to build a safe and sustainable ready-made garment industry.”
“We have a responsibility to ensure workers in our supply chain go to work in a safe and secure environment,” said CEO Anders Holch Povlsen. “Thanks to this new agreement, we can continue to build on the vital work from all parties involved in the original Accord, and we look forward to working with our colleagues and partners to continue towards our goal of a safe and sustainable fashion industry.”
Overall, there’s a palpable sense of relief.
“Today is a win for the workers in Bangladesh because the Accord saves lives,” said Nazma Akhter, executive director of Awaj Foundation and a member of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation. “I hope all major brands sourcing from Bangladesh sign on to the new agreement.”
The international coverage of the new Accord is one that labor advocates have fought hard for. The Accord’s efforts have made the world’s third-largest exporter of apparel—after China and, more recently Vietnam—one of the safest to manufacture clothing. Others are less fortunate. In this past year alone, 28 workers died in an illegal textile facility in the northern Moroccan city of Tangier after they were trapped by heavy floods. The next month, 20 people died and 24 were hurt in a fire that tore through a four-story garment factory in the Al Qalyubia province north of Cairo. A few weeks after that, 25 people perished and 75 others suffered injuries following the implosion of a 10-story building that housed an unlicensed garment factory in Cairo’s Gesr El Suez district. Other fires have consumed facilities in India, South Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Pakistan has faced its own share of industrial horrors, including a fire that killed more than 250 garment workers in 2012, mere months before the Rana Plaza disaster.
“In absence of efficient implementation of labor laws, the extension of the Accord to Pakistan can help in improving the labor-rights situation in Pakistan,” said Khalid Mahmood, director of the Labour Education Foundation. “Global brands have to share the responsibility of providing freedom of association, living wages, social protection and safe working conditions to garment workers across the supply chain. A legally binding Accord can be an effective tool for securing basic rights of workers but it can only be effective with meaningful participation from an organized labor force.”
Labor groups said that every brand that “places any value” on the lives of workers who sew its clothes will sign the new Accord and that it is “especially important” that the “reckless” companies that did not sign the original Accord put their pens to this one.
“Garment workers in Bangladesh used to die in the dozens and hundreds making T-shirts and sweaters for the world’s leading apparel brands,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “The Accord put an end to that horror. Provided enough brands sign, this new agreement will ensure it never returns.”