On the morning of April 24, 2013, an eight-story facility housing several garment factories and shops collapsed on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, killing 1,134 people and maiming and injuring thousands more.
This was, of course, the tragedy of Rana Plaza, a singular event that has changed so much and yet so little at the same time.
Six years after the disaster brought fresh scrutiny to the precarious lives of garment workers in the South Asian nation, labor-rights activists find themselves struggling for better safety conditions all over again.
The leading bone of contention? The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a watershed agreement, forged in the aftermath of Rana Plaza, that legally committed 200 of the world’s leading brands and retailers to inspecting and remediating some 1,700 factories across the country.
Like its American-led (but non-binding) counterpart, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, the Accord always had an expiration date. But recent events, including fires in factories under the monitoring purview of the Bangladeshi government, have prompted the Clean Clothes Campaign, an international consortium of workers-rights groups and labor unions, to question the readiness of local inspection bodies to handle the reins.
Not that the Accord has much of a say in the matter. A hearing on May 19 in Bangladesh’s Appellate Court could force the group to shutter operations “without taking into account whether national agencies would be ready to take up the work.”
“The terrible fire at FR Tower, which housed several garment brands’ buyers offices, showed that the same combination of owners’ negligence of building regulations and authorities’ failure to inspect buildings and enforce regulations that made Rana Plaza possible is still a daily reality in Bangladesh,” Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement on Tuesday. “The responsible authorities had failed to notice or act upon the knowledge that the building had no safety licenses, violated building construction rules, had no fire-protected exits and kept many of its emergency doors locked, despite earlier fires in the building. The fires in Chawkbazar district and at Anzir Apparels also underscore that the government is not upholding its own laws.”
Protests by workers seeking a higher minimum wage in December and January, though by and large peaceful, were met with violence from police, resulting in the death of one worker and injuries in dozens of others. At least 65 garment workers were arrested. Of the 11,600 who lost their jobs, most have been unable to find new employment because of “systematic blacklisting,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum.
“This is the most extensive repression ever faced by garment workers in Bangladesh,” Gearhart said. “How can we trust a government with ensuring the safety of workers, when it is shooting at those same workers in the street? The government is prioritizing safeguarding its position as offering the cheapest labor in the region over the safety and well-being of workers.”
A premature termination of the Accord, labor advocates warn, could jeopardize $30 billion garment industry, since signatory companies have “made clear” that endangering the safety of workers is a risk they would need to weigh in their business decisions.
“The forced closure of the Accord’s Dhaka office will cause brands to see the country as a far riskier place to produce,” said Laura Gutierrez, field director, Bangladesh, at the Worker Rights Consortium. “This will have grim consequences for workers and factory owners alike.”
The Accord, which has helped eliminate more than 97,000 identified hazards, including structural defects, compromised fire exits and inadequate alarms, according to the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University, remains the “only credible instrument” in a country where the government’s inspection agencies are either unable or unwilling to enforce safety measures, said Lynda Yanz, a coordinator at the Maquila Solidarity Network.
“Fortunately, apparel companies continue to recognise this, with two new brands signing onto the agreement last week,” Yanz added. “Companies that source from Bangladesh and think that less transparent or non-binding alternatives might provide the same level of protection for their workers—and brand reputation—risk seeing tragedy strike again in their supplier factories.”
Nirapon, a self-regulating organization taking over some of the departing Alliance’s duties, is a “grossly inadequate alternative,” the Clean Clothes Campaign noted. According to its website, Nirapon will not publicly identify factories that fall short of its standards, nor will it have the authority to require remediation in factories with safety violations or suspend factories that fail to do so. While it claims factory assessments will be conducted by “qualified assessment firms,” the identities of these firms are being kept tightly under lid. Equally unclear: the mechanisms through which safety violations will be addressed.
Ejecting the Accord from Dhaka without a credible replacement would be a “major setback for worker safety in the country,” Zeldenrust said. “In the interest of protecting garment worker safety, the Bangladesh government and factory owners’ associations should work with the Accord to achieve agreement on a responsible transition plan that is conditional on the readiness of national inspection bodies before the next court hearing.”