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World’s Biggest Brands Back International Accord for Worker Safety

A new agreement designed to protect workers in Bangladesh and other garment-producing nations kicked off Wednesday with the unveiling of 77 inaugural signatories, including the world’s three biggest fashion retailers by revenue.

Uniqlo operator Fast Retailing joined H&M and Zara owner Inditex, which announced their participation last week, in lending its support to the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, a successor to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh that is now in effect. All three companies were signatories of the original Accord, which emerged in 2013 after the collapse of the Rana Plaza multi-factory complex killed 1,134 workers and triggered a reckoning over safety conditions in the fashion supply chain.

“The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, to which Fast Retailing was a signatory, was a very successful milestone for the manufacturing industry in Bangladesh,” Yukihiro Nitta, group senior vice president responsible for sustainability at Fast Retailing, said in a statement. “It delivered new levels of accountability for brands and manufacturers under a framework that demonstrably raised industry standards to safeguard the safety of workers. Fast Retailing is very pleased to support the new Accord and to continue making workplaces safer for the people who help make our clothes.”

The first tranche of signatories also includes fashion nameplates such as American Eagle Outfitters, Asos, Marks & Spencer (which, like H&M, was previously on the fence), Puma and PVH Corp, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

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American Eagle and PVH, both adopters of the Bangladesh Accord, are two of a handful of American retailers that have embraced the new contract. Others include Fanatics, Mitchell & Ness, New Agenda owner Perrin Inc. and Top of the World by Fanatics. Walmart and Timberland operator VF Corp. previously told Sourcing Journal that they were relying on the monitoring work of Nirapon, an independent body that replaced the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety after its dissolution in 2018. The Alliance ran in parallel with the Accord but did not carry the same liability risk for its members, which could fund safety upgrades on a more voluntary basis.

“We’re glad to see that so many brands have signed on swiftly and we urge all other apparel and textile companies sourcing from Bangladesh and other high-risk countries to join in promptly to protect the safety of workers in their supply chains,” Liana Foxvog, crisis response director at the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington D.C.-based labor-rights group, told Sourcing Journal.

Like the original Accord, the new 26-month agreement will be legally binding, committing its signatories to help finance, monitor and ensure remediation work at their supplier factories. Its work will be overseen by the Accord Secretariat, a fully independent body, based in Amsterdam, with the authority to verify and enforce brand compliance. Only brands that sign this new agreement will be able to tap into the services of the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), the tripartite national body that has taken over the monitoring and inspection responsibilities of the Accord in Bangladesh, union groups had previously said, though there is some dispute over the specifics of this arrangement.

Although the International Accord will commence in Bangladesh to begin with, signatories have pledged to extend those efforts to at least one another country within the first two years, perhaps Pakistan, where trade unions have for years been lobbying for an Accord of their own. The agreement will also tackle for the first time human-rights due diligence, a growing liability concern as mandatory supply-chain legislation in the European Union and elsewhere gathers momentum. Critically, the International Accord will broaden its coverage to general health and safety, instead of focusing on only fire and building safety.

“This International Accord is an important victory towards making the textile and garment industry safe and sustainable,” Valter Sanches, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union said when the International Accord was unveiled last week. “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.”

Labor campaigners have expressed disappointment, however, at brands that have shunned the new Accord. The original agreement had 200 signatories. More brands and retailers, the Clean Clothes Campaign said Wednesday, must step up “to ensure the work in Bangladesh can continue and work in other countries can start.” The consortium of trade unions and workers-rights organizations said it has relaunched its Accord “tracker,” indicating which brands are participating in the agreement and which are not.

“The fact that other major companies sourcing from Bangladesh, including Gap, VF Corporation (North Face), Primark, Desigual and Auchan, have not yet signed the new agreement is extremely worrying and means that the workers in their supply chains will continue to risk their lives in dangerous factories and that these brands are not contributing financially to make factories safer,” the Clean Clothes Campaign wrote in a statement. “The Clean Clothes Campaign network and its allies will start a public campaign calling out all brands that fail to prioritize their workers’ safety by signing the International Accord.”

Primark said it will be signing the Accord. “We’re pleased that the negotiations for the new Accord have now concluded,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “It is our intention to sign the new agreement and we are currently in a legal review of the documentation.”

Auchan, Gap and Desigual did not immediately respond to requests for comment.