Another day, another major garment factory fire.
The latest one, which tore through a knitting facility in West Bengal in eastern India Thursday, drew 15 fire tenders to the North 24 Parganas district to wrestle with the flames, which continued to smolder in parts of the factory into Friday.
Up to four people, believed to be have been inside the 50,000-square-foot building before the fire broke out, are still missing, according to local media reports. Their family members have been waiting outside one of the charred buildings, which stored flammable materials such as sanitizer next to hosiery and other items, for the past 30 hours. Despite efforts by firefighters to cover some ground in search of survivors, none have been found. The source of the conflagration is still under investigation.
“By and large, the fire has been contained,” a fire brigade official told The Times of India. “But until the pockets of fire are totally doused, we cannot undertake the search operation in the entire premises for the missing persons.”
Most of West Bengal, including its garment industry, has been under lockdown since May 15 in a bid to contain the spreading coronavirus infection. On Thursday the local government extended Covid-19-related restrictions until June 15, citing an unprecedented surge in cases. Only grocery stores and pharmacies have been exempted.
This past month has been marked by conflagrations in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa that have bolstered calls by labor advocates for a legally binding fire and building safety agreement that covers all garment-producing nations, particularly as the pandemic has thrown into relief the glaring inequities endemic to the garment supply chain.
The watershed Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which emerged in the aftermath of the deadly 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, is set to expire at the end of the week, returning the world’s No. 2 garment exporter to a time when self-regulation, voluntary oversight and limited accountability were the laws of the land.
Negotiations for a new, expanded agreement have largely failed. While a joint statement from the original Accord signatories said they were “committed to secure fire, building and electrical safety in the long term at all our producing factories in Bangladesh,” only a handful of the Accord’s nearly 200 signatories—Asos, Tchibo and, most recently, Joe Fresh and Zeeman—have expressed support for a new deal.
Meanwhile, IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, the labor signatories of the Accord withdrew their membership from the Readymade Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), “stripping away any credibility” of the tripartite body of factory owners, businesses and workers unions, which has already taken on most of the infrastructure, operations and staff of the Accord—and, come June 1, will supplant it entirely without the legal mandate.
“[It’s like] trying to drive an engine without a car—you need both the RSC operation on the ground and a legally binding agreement on top,” Ineke Zeldenrust, the international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a witness signatory to the Accord, said at a briefing last month.
“I find it incredible that in the context of Covid and in light of all the other problems plaguing the industry in Bangladesh and other countries [that] we even have to fight again to keep the one program we all agree is functional in existence,” she said. “Whatever happened to if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Whatever happened to learning our lessons, which have been a lot, and actually implementing them elsewhere?”
A recent report about “unfinished business” in Bangladesh determined that at least 12 leading brands covered by the Accord, including Bestseller, C&A, H&M, Lindex and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp., are each sourcing from dozens of factories that have failed to install fire alarms, sprinkler systems and adequate emergency exits. Responses by the retailers to the study have been tepid, according to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, which published statements from 10 of the brands. (WE Fashion and PVH Corp. did not reply.)
“The numbers referred to in the report ‘Unfinished Business’ do not mean that factories lack these safety mechanisms. It can rather refer to the fact that these mechanisms are in need of maintenance or do not have adequate size according to international safety standards,” H&M wrote. “ Some of the issues stated in the report have already been corrected, but due to lockdowns and fewer factory visits because of Covid-19, the Accord has not been able to verify these corrections. We will of course support our suppliers to correct pending matters. Regardless of any future decision about organization or governance of the Accord, our position on and commitment to this extremely important area will stand.”
Bestseller said that since Covid-19 has made it challenging for RSC personnel to officially verify improvements, much progress has “not been officially recorded, and is therefore not reflected in these figures.”
“Regarding the future of the Accord/RSC, brands, trade unions, and employer associations are still in a negotiation period on a future agreement, and we are hopeful that despite differences, we will still be able to secure an agreement. In respect of the ongoing negotiations, we will decline to comment further at this stage and will comment further only when negotiations are finalized,” it added.
For C&A, which said it believes incorporating the Accord’s learnings into the RSC is critical, an agreement to do is “still possible and highly desirable.”
“Moreover, we have always been engaged and involved in making the garment sector in Bangladesh as safe as possible,” it said. “As a proof, we set up a dedicated team in Bangladesh including our own fire and safety engineer working very closely with the Bangladesh Accord for the past eight years. The task of the C&A team is to follow up the progress of the factories working for C&A and help suppliers and factories to be ready for verification.”
But the legally binding nature of the Accord, which obliged brands to comply, is part of what made it so successful, its proponents say.
On Wednesday, more than 40 business and human-rights academics from Columbia University, Stanford Law School, Lund University, the University of Leicester, the University of London and others published an open letter urging the Accord’s signatories to adopt a successor agreement that replicates—and improves upon—the Bangladesh model, which they described as an “innovative and successful development” in holding brands and retailers liable for the working conditions of their suppliers.
“Since it began, the Bangladesh Accord has created trust among workers, has helped prevent accidents and protected workers dismissed unfairly for raising safety concerns,” they wrote. “Global union federations, who are also Accord signatories, are able to bring charges against brands and retailers that fail to fulfill commitments under the Bangladesh Accord, which has led to two cases being brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and resulted in effective settlements to upgrade factory remediation.”
The Accord, they added, is an “excellent example” of how businesses can help promote the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) through the use of remediation measures and by introducing a non-judicial grievance mechanism.
“It also contributes to the further awareness of human rights risks in supplier factories, in line with recent trends towards the adoption of mandatory corporate human rights due-diligence laws applicable to multinational firms’ global production and supply chains,” they said. “It would be a very negative step for the participating businesses, many of which have developed human rights policies based on the UNGPs, to let this historic instrument fall by the wayside. They must act now to adopt a successor agreement.”