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International Safety Accord Expands to Pakistan

After years of pleading and petitioning, Pakistan’s garment workers are getting an Accord of their own.

The deal will fall under the auspices of the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Garment Industry, the successor to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh that emerged from the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. Modeled after the Bangladesh agreement, Pakistan’s version shares its tentpole features, including a legally binding mechanism that mandates time-bound remediation plans once fire, electrical, structural and boiler hazards are uncovered.

Moreover, it could hold half of the International Accord’s 187 brand signatories that source from Pakistan, including Bestseller, Boohoo, C&A, H&M Group and Zara owner Inditex, to account for conditions at the hundreds of factories and mills from which they contract. This includes ensuring that those suppliers have the resources to pay for renovations and that their workers have grievance mechanisms to lodge complaints.

“After years of fighting for the expansion of the Accord to Pakistan, our workers can finally be brought under its monitoring and complaint mechanisms,” said Nasir Mansoor, general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation Pakistan. “If enough brands sign, workers will not have to fear for their lives when going to work and will know who to appeal to when their factory is unsafe. The strength of the Accord is in the fact that unions have equal power to corporations in its decision-making.”

Brands will have to sign up separately for the Pakistan Accord, which opens on Jan. 16 for an interim term of three years, during which it will take a “phased” approach based on an assessment of the level of safety risks and the nature of the signatories’ business relationships with their suppliers, the International Accord said. An independent chief safety officer with fire and building safety expertise and “impeccable credentials” will be appointed for this purpose. Each signatory will be required to contribute a minimum of $2,500 and a maximum of $185,000 per year to fund the program, based on a formula established by the International Accord’s steering committee.

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As in the case of Bangladesh, whose inspection and remediation scheme is run by the tripartite Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council, or RSC, the steering committee will assume responsibility for the overall management of the Pakistan Accord until a national governance body comprising industry, brands, trade unions and others can be established.

Pakistani labor campaigners have been calling for change even before the tragedy in Bangladesh claimed 1,134 lives and maimed scores more. For them, the problems hit closer to home: Six months before, Ali Enterprises, a textile factory complex in the city of Karachi, burst into flames, killing more than 250 workers and injuring 60 others. Italian auditing group RINA had just declared the building as “safe.”

In the decade since the fire, voluntary auditing systems have continued to fail to protect workers in Pakistan, union leaders say. In a survey of nearly 600 garment workers that the Clean Clothes Campaign commissioned earlier this year, roughly 85 percent reported that they lacked access to properly enclosed stairwells that could deliver them to safety in the event of a fire. One-fifth of workers said that their workplace lacked fire drills and that they were unaware of emergency escape routes and exits.

More than a dozen incidents in Pakistan’s garment factories have resulted in deaths and injuries in 2022 alone, the organization said. In January, a poisonous gas leak killed four workers at a factory that makes jeans for H&M Group, an International Accord signatory, and Levi Strauss, a non-signatory.

“The responsibility to ensure factory workers in Pakistan are safe when they go to work falls on the brands who source and profit from these factories,” Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, said at the time. “Brands have the power to lead the way and make changes with the potential to improve the lives of millions of workers by giving them what we should all be entitled to expect—a safe and healthy workplace and the right to be part of the process of making it so.”

KiK, the German discount chain that was Ali Enterprise’s chief customer, was the first to commit to a Pakistan Accord by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with industry stakeholders, including representatives from labor unions and the Employers’ Federation of Pakistan, last week. Now the question is whether more brands, especially those that allied with rival safety-monitoring body Nirapon over the Accord in Bangladesh, will back the program and make Pakistan a safer place to produce clothes. Even among International Accord signatories, discussions over the expansion occasionally grew heated.

“The Accord program will bring inspections, safety trainings and a complaint mechanism covering all health and safety issues, including gender-based violence, to workers in Pakistan producing for signatory brands,” said Zehra Khan, general secretary of the Home-Based Women Workers’ Federation. “Particular attention will be needed to ensure that women workers, who are often not officially registered and might be working from home, have the same access to this program as other workers.”

Textiles make up 60 percent of Pakistan’s exports, which dipped by 19 percent on a year-over-year basis to bring in $ 1.4 billion in November, according to data from the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association. Pakistan emerged as a priority country, the International Accord said, because of its importance as a sourcing hub to its existing signatories. The program plans to incrementally cover more than 500 factories throughout the Sindh and Punjab provinces, where most of the country’s garment and textile manufacturing is centered.

“It has long been our goal to expand the successful model established in Bangladesh to other countries,” said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union. “With the Pakistan Accord, we will improve safety and save lives and increase our reach from the garment sector to home textiles and accessories. International retailers and brands that source from Pakistan that want to be committed to safety should sign up and take responsibility for the workers in their supply chains.”