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Fires Everywhere as Pivotal Worker Safety Pact Trapped in Limbo

The garment industry is in flames, both literally and figuratively, at a pivotal time for worker safety in Bangladesh and the rest of the world.

On Saturday, West Bengal firefighters recovered the charred bodies of four workers who were trapped in an illegally run knitting factory that caught fire in the eastern Indian state’s North 24 Parganas district last week. Amit Sen, Subrata Ghosh, Swarup Ghosh and Tanmoy Ghosh, who were in their late 20s and early 30s, were found near the second-floor stairs, according to local media, indicating that they tried to escape to the terrace but failed to do so because the door was locked.

“The bodies were severely burnt,” an officer at the Barrackpore commissionerate told The Times of India. “Their families identified them by finger rings, chains, wristwatches, and other accessories.” The bodies have been sent to Kamarhati Sagore Dutta Medical College & Hospital for postmortem and a First Information Report, which is required to open a criminal investigation, has been lodged against the factory’s owner.

In the Pakistani city of Karachi the same day, a major fire at the Al-Awal garment factory in the New Karachi Industrial Area prompted 16 fire tenders, a water bowser and a water tanker to battle the conflagration well into Sunday. One official told that an electrical short circuit might have been the cause. He also said that there were no workers in the facility because they had the day off.

In the city of Multan, also in Pakistan, a fire raged at a cotton factory on Khanewal Road for the third day after breaking out on Sunday. At least 30 fire tenders and Army Aviation helicopters are on the scene, according to Dunya News, which noted that houses in the neighborhood have been evacuated and electricity in the area suspended. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but no one appears to have been hurt.

And in the United States, the Los Angeles County Fire Department battled a conflagration at a facility it described both as a warehouse and as a shoe factory on Salt Lake Avenue that caused the building’s roof to collapse. One firefighter suffered minor injuries in the blaze and was taken to a local hospital, according to officials, adding that the cause of the fire was not immediately known.

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The incidents are just the latest in a series of workplace disasters that continues to plague a sector marred by safety failings, lackluster regulations and weak oversight. And with a landmark safety agreement now in limbo, whatever gains that have been hard fought for over the past several years—and proven that the garment industry is capable of reform—are in danger of being rolled back, experts say.

The three-month extension of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is no more than a “respite that maintains the status quo,” labor campaigners at the Clean Clothes Campaign, a signatory, said Tuesday.

This interim agreement will maintain the current commitments of the 2018 Transition Accord—itself an extension of a five-year pact that was forged in the aftermath of the 2013 collapse of the multi-factory Rana Plaza complex, which killed 1,134 workers and injured thousands more just outside the South Asian nation’s capital of Dhaka. Most of the infrastructure, operations and staff of the Accord has already ceded to the Readymade Sustainability Council (RSC), a Bangladesh-based tripartite body of factory owners, businesses and workers unions that was poised to supplant the former body on June 1, if without the legal mandate.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department battled a conflagration at a shoe factory on Salt Lake Avenue that caused the building’s roof to collapse.
One firefighter battling the Los Angeles inferno suffered minor injuries in the blaze and was taken to a local hospital, according to officials, adding that the cause of the fire was not immediately known. L.A. County Fire Department/Twitter

“The question at hand is still the same: will the Accord’s signatory brands agree to a new binding safety agreement that ensures the safety work in Bangladesh remains individually enforceable upon brands, keeps an independent secretariat in place that oversees the brands’ compliance, and allows for expansion to other countries?” they added. “Without such an agreement, brands’ efforts in Bangladesh will amount to no more than the kind of self-monitoring practices that failed to prevent the Rana Plaza building collapse.”

Members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the country’s largest trade group of garment factory owners, have argued against the binding nature of the Accord, which they say isn’t relevant to the RSC’s work. They also bristle at efforts that they view as overly paternalistic—even threaded with colonial undertones. (The Accord is operated out of the Netherlands.)

“[The] RSC is an all-inclusive platform,” Miran Ali, director of the RSC and vice president of the BGMEA, told Sourcing Journal. “All three parties’ participation should be unconditional. And industry safety should not be tied to any bilateral agreement.”

“It’s not nice to hear the same level of industry bashing going on at a national and international level,” Rubana Huq, former president of the BGMEA, previously told Sourcing Journal. “We should all give an open call for the world to see what the RSC has done in the last couple of months and to what extent the Accord foundation is participating. Scheduling, inspections, everything has been done by RSC. So why is it we always talk about supervision from somebody?”

Still, labor unions insist that the binding nature of the contract is necessary to keep brands not just morally but also legally and financially accountable for the factories from which they source their products.

“The RSC, which implements the safety work in Bangladesh, does not have the power to hold brands and retailers accountable to their promises,” Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation and founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, said Monday. “Only an international legally binding agreement will ensure that brands can be held accountable in court for the promises they made to make factories safe. As brands hold the power in the supply chain, our efforts in Bangladesh for workplace safety can only be successful if brands can be compelled to stick to their word.”

Of the Accord’s nearly 200 signatories, only a handful of brands—Asos, G-Star Raw, KiK, Tchibo, Joe Fresh and Zeeman—have expressed support for a new agreement that incorporates this element. Most have promoted what labor groups have described as a “watered-down” version tantamount to the same voluntary self-monitoring model that led to the loss of so many lives nearly a decade ago.

“The next three months will show whether other Accord signatories are willing to remain accountable for their commitments, rather than returning to pre-Rana Plaza practices,” the Clean Clothes Campaign said.

Also at stake is a possible expansion of the original agreement to all garment-producing countries, something labor advocates say is urgently needed. Just months before the Rana Plaza disaster grabbed headlines, a fire at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Pakistan claimed the lives of 250 workers. Labor groups in Pakistan have been fighting for an Accord of their own ever since.

“Factory problems are not new to this industry and we don’t think that issues around safety should be put to the side right now,” Christina Hajagos Clausen, garment director at IndustriALL Global Union, an Accord signatory that recently broke off from the RSC, said at a briefing last month. “Right now is the time to move forward with a global agreement that would be legally binding. It’s quite important for workers, globally, to be able to go to work safely. This is not something that should only be for one group of workers in one country.”