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Why Global Unions Are Severing Ties With Bangladesh RSC

The Bangladesh garment sector is in quite a dilemma.

Just as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, formed in the aftermath of the collapse of the eight floor Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, celebrates its eight-year anniversary on Saturday, it is also closing in on the end of its second extension expiring May 31.

The major forces that came together to make the Accord work—labor unions UNI and IndustriAll and a long list of global brands and retailers—are now scrambling in search of the best way forward.

One point of focus has been the future of the RMG Sustainability Council, or RSC, which took over the Accord’s operations and team after the Bangladesh Supreme court limited its tenure.

The new entity also included representation from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, or BGMEA, which long complained that local factory owners didn’t have representation in the safety processes mandated by the Accord.

However, as the Accord end date approaches, a turmoil of activity has begun. On Wednesday, the IndustriALL and UNI unions announced the end of their participation in the RMG Sustainability Council on June 1, citing many brands’ refusal to sign a new binding agreement, which they had hoped would continue the Accord’s work.

“Instead of bargaining over the next phase of our joint safety work in Bangladesh, the brands have pursued an ‘Accord Exit’ strategy designed to write away any meaningful role for unions in the future,” said Christy Hoffman, general secretary, UNI Global Union, who told Sourcing Journal that the Accord is “a proven model that works” and still has work to do in Bangladesh.

Much has been done in these past years, with more than 90 percent (1,260) of factories starting initial remediation and 359 factories completing the process.

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“The RSC can only continue if there is a robust agreement between the brands and the unions to hold it together. It is in everybody’s interest. We want RSC to work, but it has to prove that it can do the job before it becomes 100 percent independent. The Accord secretariat is not going to run the RSC, but still they should have access to information and the same transparency obligations. It is essential to keep the Accord as an outside check on making sure that things are moving as they should,” she said. “It is in the interest of the BGMEA as well.”

Hoffman believes that an Accord extension is the way forward, and not one in which the unions just have a role within the compliance committee of the brand association. “We’re not going to agree to that ever,” she said.

IndustriALL also warned that the time is not right for the Accord to dissolve.

“The brands’ proposal of self-monitoring is a dangerous step backwards and undermines the credibility of the program. It will have immediate consequences for the safety of millions of workers in the brands’ supply chains,” Valter Sanches, general secretary, IndustriALL Global Union, said in a statement.

Other NGOs have been expressing their concern, as well. Nonprofit organization Remake held an urgent Renew the Bangladesh Accord press conference on Thursday, cautioning that the need for the Accord was greater than ever as “the situation for garment makers has worsened because of Covid-19 against the backdrop of order cancellations, steep price cuts and the resulting wage and severance theft, police and gender-based violence.” It also note that the Accord did make many buildings safer in Bangladesh and with its safety committees furthered unions’ ability to bring their concerns to the table.

Clean Clothes Campaign urged brands to mark the Bangladesh Accord’s May 15 anniversary by committing to new binding safety agreements to safeguard its work of making conditions safer for more than two million workers.  “Even if hazards are reported as remediated, in almost 25 percent of cases verification shows the renovation was not up to standard, illustrating the need for independent oversight rather than self reporting,” Clean Clothes Campaign said in a statement.

Ineke Zeldenrust of Clean Clothes Campaign added, “Brands are proposing a type of agreement that we know from before 2012—one that is no longer legally binding upon individual brands and has no independent secretariat to oversee brand compliance. Under the guise of setting up a lean structure brands are in fact returning to self-monitoring, in direct contradiction of what upcoming legislation is demanding.”

While the global unions would like the Accord to continue, Bangladesh manufacturers have been clear that the time for transition is well past, with national monitoring as the key to moving forward.

BGMEA president Faruque Hassan, who took office on April 20, told Sourcing Journal earlier this week that RSC would advance the Accord’s workplace safety achievements. “RSC is an independent national safety, compliance and sustainability monitoring regime for the ready-made garment industry. It is a national initiative with global standards and was formed with the motto of bringing an end to the unilateral safety regimes and establishing the route to national monitoring,” he said.

“RSC is governed by an equal number of representatives from brands, manufacturers and trade unions. Among the 18 board members, six are from industry, six from the brands and six from the global trade unions and the local affiliates,” Hassan added.

Meanwhile, the RSC has many issues to sort through, namely an urgent need in terms of the funding which was coming in from the brands through the Accord, and whether the RSC will take on a more inclusive role to encompass the garment factories in Bangladesh that are not covered by the Accord. Manufacturers are also concerned about other important points including purchasing practices, pricing and issues related to the safety of workers during Covid-19, cancellations of orders, and reaching wider, global markets.

“The BGMEA is not a party to these negotiations,” said Miran Ali, vice president, BGMEA. “We solely hope that the brands and the trade unions come to an amicable understanding and we continue the work of the RSC.”

Hoffman remains optimistic. “I have a lot of hope in the situation,” she said, outlining the way forward including the binding nature of the Transition Accord and scaling up. “We  want to start the process of taking the Accord to other countries.”