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Are H&M and Zara ‘Willfully Obstructing’ Pakistan Worker Safety?

Nearly a decade after a garment factory fire in the Pakistani city of Karachi killed more than 250 workers and injured 60, labor campaigners claim that brands such as Bestseller, C&A, H&M Group and Zara owner Inditex are trying to block the expansion of a legally binding safety agreement that would make apparel production in the country less deadly.

By delaying the start of an International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment Industry program in Pakistan, brands are “strategically” running down the clock on the deal, which will be up for renegotiation in early 2023, said the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the garment industry’s largest consortium of workers’ rights groups and trade unions.

“On the surface, it seems that all representatives in the steering committee are in favor of the expansion to Pakistan,” the organization wrote in a report published Wednesday. “However, although the Accord’s senior staff have recommended the initiation of a program in Pakistan, the brand representatives on the steering committee have refused to join their labor counterparts in supporting initiation.”

Representatives from Bestseller, C&A, H&M and Inditex, the CCC said, have instead insisted on “delay after delay to the point where their posture suggests not caution, but willful obstruction.” This “fits a pattern” of their negotiation tactics regarding the previous Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which was poised to sunset in June 2021 but had to be expanded by three months at the “very last minute” to safeguard existing standards as discussions about the new terms “continued to drag on,” it said.

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“Now, brands are attempting to delay the expansion of the International Accord to Pakistan apparently to avoid taking responsibility, including financially, for the safety of more of the workers who sew their clothes,” the CCC wrote. “The current situation, in which workers are at risk with no binding mechanisms to protect their safety, greatly benefits brands, as they are able to turn a blind eye to safety violations that they know are occurring in their supply chain.”

Both Bestseller and C&A dismissed the idea that anyone in the steering committee, which includes representatives from industry, brands and trade unions, is acting in the manner described.

“We agree with the CCC’s premise that there is a pressing need for an expansion of the International Accord to Pakistan, and we are working with our partners in the Accord steering committee collectively and actively toward exactly this,” a Bestseller spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “As learned from experience in Bangladesh, research and consultation with unions, brands and national stakeholders are key to securing broad support for the Accord model, and we see this process as foundational to our collective goal of a genuinely sustainable tripartite mechanism to secure worker safety in Pakistan.”

The C&A representative, who said there was “too much at stake” not to set things up correctly from the beginning, added that the Dutch retailer is “fully focused on securing a genuinely sustainable tripartite mechanism to secure worker safety.” The so-called “willful obstruction,” the spokesperson said, is a mischaracterization of research and consultation among unions, brands and national stakeholders that are “key steps” to building a “successful and functioning business case” to secure broad support for the Accord model.

Inditex, too, said that it’s committed to expanding the Accord to Pakistan, but that the “experience in Bangladesh clearly shows that only through close collaboration between brands, manufacturers and trade unions can we achieve the common goal of building a successful model.” That’s the model the Berksha and Pull&Bear operator is “trying to boost,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.

Masarrat Quader, who handles stakeholder engagement at H&M Group, only said that the H&M, Cos and Monki owner remains committed to promoting fire, building and electrical safety in its supply chain and that it is “positive” that an expansion of the Accord will create “systemic change.” H&M Group, Quader said, will continue to “engage and push the work forward” in collaboration with other companies, global trade unions, suppliers and governments.

CCC said, however, that garment workers in Pakistan today remain no safer than they did on Sept. 11, 2012, when Ali Enterprises burst into flames following an act of arson. As survivors would later recall, locked emergency doors and windows blocked by metal grilles prevented workers from escaping to safety. Passageways and stairs overflowing with finished garments also hindered movement. Workers who managed to fling themselves from the roof of the four-story building either died or suffered broken bones. Those who remained trapped succumbed to smoke inhalation. When they were finally pulled out, their bodies were charred beyond recognition. Just weeks before the disaster, Pakistan‘s worst industrial fire to date, Italian auditing group RINA had declared Ali Enterprises as “safe.” German discount chain KiK was its main customer at the time.

In a recent survey of nearly 600 garment workers across 64 factories in Faisalabad, Karachi and Lahore by the CCC and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data at Cardiff University, roughly 85 percent of respondents said they had no access to properly enclosed exit stairwells in the event of a fire. One-fifth of workers reported that their workplace lacked fire drills and that they were unaware of emergency escape routes and exits.

Workers at factories producing for H&M Group and Bestseller, the organizations said, reported explosions and exposure to electrical discharge and harmful substances. Others at Inditex and H&M Group factories said they witnessed fires at their workplaces. A poisonous gas leak that killed four workers at a factory that makes jeans for H&M Group in January might have been prevented if the facility had a workers’ health and safety committee that operated in tandem with the Accord’s safety and health complaints mechanism, the CCC said.

“These violations throw into question why a binding safety program has not already been implemented in Pakistan and demonstrate the need for immediate expansion of the International Accord,” it added. “Workers deserve to feel safe and protected when going to work and it’s the responsibility of brands to ensure this as they are the ones profiting. Brands should stop delaying the expansion process and take immediate steps to make factories safer.”