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H&M, Zara Pose ‘Barriers to Safety’ in Bangladesh, Labor Groups Say

Asos, Esprit, G-Star Raw, S.Oliver, Tchibo and Uniqlo are in. Bestseller, C&A, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Primark and Zara owner Inditex, on the other hand, are not.

With the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh poised to unravel at the end of the month, battle lines are being drawn between those who support a continuation of the watershed agreement and those who seek a return to the self-governance framework that preceded the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in 2013.

Negotiations for an extended pact that would continue to hold signatories legally liable for worker safety at the factories that produce their goods are at a deadlock, labor campaigners say, with several notable brands backtracking from earlier promises to continue the Accord.

Union leaders have reacted with dismay.

“The Bangladesh Accord has shown that it has the elements needed to bring real change to garment factories in Bangladesh,” Amin Amirul Haque, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, said in a statement. “Why does it take so long for brands to agree on a new safety agreement that safeguards a system that has prevented many workers‘ deaths and injuries over the past eight years? A legally binding agreement is needed to ensure workers’ rights are respected.”

Of the 200 brands and retailers that signed the original Accord, just 12 have agreed to back an extension that includes individual brand accountability, independent oversight and the potential for expansion to other countries, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, which published this week a “brand tracker” of companies both for and against the agreement.

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“It is crucial that the new safety agreement has a global scope,” said Nasir Mansoor, president of the Pakistan National Trade Union Federation, which has been lobbying for a Pakistani version of the Accord. “Eight years since the Rana Plaza collapse, the safety situation in many factories beyond Bangladesh remains unaddressed. It is time that workers in supplier factories in other countries have access to the same inspections, trainings, and complaint mechanism that have made a difference to workers in Bangladesh.”

H&M, one of the brands the Clean Clothes Campaign singled out for failing to wield its “considerable power to ensure that advances on supply chain factory safety are maintained,” said it is “focusing on strengthening” the Ready-made Garments Sustainability Council (RSC), the tripartite entity that has largely taken over the monitoring and inspection duties of the Accord, albeit without the legal heft. In July, labor unions UNI and IndustriALL Global Union cut ties with the RSC, citing its lack of enforceability.

“H&M Group continues to support clear accountability for brands and are willing to sign a one-to-one legally binding agreement enforceable on us as a brand,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “However, since a majority of all international brands must be onboard for industry-wide change to happen, we are working on creating a solution together with the industry and trade unions that welcomes all brands, that commit to adhere to agreed standards and protocols on building, fire and electrical safety, to participate.”

Inditex, which the Clean Clothes Campaign similarly characterized as a “barrier to progress on factory safety,” refuted the organization’s charges, saying it is playing an “active part” in negotiations to ensure the “safety of those working in the fashion supply chain in Bangladesh in the long term.”

“We support establishing a strong new agreement with clear accountability on all parties, which has independent oversight, and we are willing to support a legally binding agreement enforceable on individual brands,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We see this as a critical opportunity to create an industry-wide standard to ensure worker safety throughout Bangladesh’s garment sector now and in the future. We also see the potential for the expansion of fire and building safety programs into new markets—the details of which remain part of the ongoing negotiations.”

In a similar vein, Marks & Spencer said the retailer “strongly supports establishing a new agreement with clear accountability on all parties, which is enforceable for individual brands and has independent oversight.”

“Importantly, in addition, we also promote tripartite structures, such as those formed within the RSC, involving international and national trade unions, local industry and international fashion brands that must be safeguarded and supported within any future agreement,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

Bestseller, C&A and Primark did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Labor advocates say that more than the future is at stake. According to recent reports about “unfinished business” in Bangladesh, many notable brands are each sourcing from dozens of factories that have failed to install fire alarms, sprinkler systems and adequate emergency exits.

While the Accord has made the country’s garment industry, the world’s No. 3 exporter of clothing after China and Vietnam, one of the safest, the work is far from over, they insist. Last month’s fire at a food and beverage factory, which killed 52 workers, including children as young as 11, too, should serve as a chilling harbinger of what awaits the garment industry should the Accord evaporate.

“Companies that have failed to push for a new safety agreement are bargaining over workers’ lives,” said Christie Miedema, campaign coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign. “Any garment brand that sources from Bangladesh and is not actively speaking out in favor of a strong binding agreement on factory safety is showing disregard towards workers’ lives.”