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Eight Years After Rana Plaza, Is Worker Safety in Bangladesh in Danger?

Eight years since a deadly garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh galvanized a landmark campaign to remedy life-threatening workplace hazards, labor advocates worry that safety standards could unravel to pre-2013 levels.

On May 31, the 2018 Transition Accord, an extension of the original five-year Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, expires, bringing with it the end of an era when 200 mostly European retailers, including H&M, Zara owner Inditex and Primark, held themselves legally accountable for maintaining safety and inspection standards at their supplier factories.

In five weeks, the agreement will be supplanted in full by the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), a tripartite body of factory owners, businesses and workers unions that has already taken on most of the infrastructure, operations and staff of the Accord. Without another legally enforceable agreement, however, labor groups say they fear the success of the Accord will be rendered meaningless and the industry will revert to the same voluntary self-monitoring model that led to the loss of a thousand lives.

The Rana Plaza tragedy, which killed 1,134 workers and injured thousands more, was entirely preventable, Kalpona Akter, a former child worker and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity said at a press briefing Thursday. Visible cracks had rippled down the walls the day before, and a structural engineer who was called in had declared the building unsafe. Though several shops and a bank on the lower floors of the eight-story building evacuated as a result, the managers of various factories threatened their workers with the loss of wages if they didn’t return the next day.

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The disaster—the deadliest in the history of the garment industry—would not have happened had there been adequate safety measures and a strong monitoring system that included workers, Akter said. Since its establishment, the Accord has conducted 38,000 inspections at more than 1,600 factories, covering two million workers. In all, it has fixed more than 120,000 fire, building and electrical hazards. Without another binding obligation through the RSC, she added, brands may not feel the same sense of urgency—or responsibility.

“The RSC does not have the same accountability and the same enforcement mechanisms to hold brands accountable like we have under the Accord,” agreed Alke Boessiger, head of commerce department of Uni Global Union, a signatory of the Accord. “If there is no credibility to the RSC, we as unions cannot be part of that anymore. We want to support the RSC and the road going forward, but we need to have very robust structures and governance and accountability to support that work of the RSC in Bangladesh.”

What is also clear is that the work of the Accord, despite its strides, isn’t finished.  With the clock running out, the remediation rate has stalled at 90 percent, said Joris Oldenziel, deputy director of the Accord, which is now based in the Netherlands. That last 10 percent, he told Sourcing Journal, includes “very significant safety hazards that are still outstanding,” such as installing and verifying fire alarm and protection systems and ensuring safe exits for workers. “The factories are significantly safer than they were when the Accord started, but there’s still quite some work to be done,” he added.

Miran Ali, director of the RSC and vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the country’s largest trade group of garment producers, said that “if anything,” the RSC is more effective than the Accord. “The biggest single problem with the Accord was the fact that it never included the people whose businesses and livelihoods it’s supposed to be changing,” Ali told Sourcing Journal, referring to factory owners. “It included workers but it didn’t include us. But it’s our investment to fix. The legally binding aspect is simply not relevant to this issue at all, and there has never been an example where it has.”

In fact, Ali added, the RSC has, “in a very short time,” performed “functionally better” in terms of the number of audits, certifications and inspections. “The RSC is simply going to ensure that Bangladesh’s garment industry continues the rigorous regime of auditing, inspections and follow-ups so it remains as safe as it is today.”

Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment & Industrial Workers Federation, and a board member of the RSC, said that while he is hopeful the group will function like the Accord, factory owners could create obstacles that would stymie its ability “to work independently in the future.” Unions fill six of the RSC’s 18 seats, which means they account for just a third of the votes. But no buyer wants to contract from a supplier that scorns worker safety or flouts labor laws, he added.

“I hope the RSC will work to make workers’ safety sustainable in an impartial, transparent and accountable manner,” he told Sourcing Journal. “It is an old habit of almost all the factory owners in Bangladesh to disobey the law, cheat the workers and obstruct trade union rights. We need institutions like [the] Accord or [the] RSC. Otherwise, the garment industry in our country will lag behind in the international competition.”

A level playing field

Indeed, the Accord’s independent, legally binding nature was what made it so effective, Oldenziel said, since it required all brands and retailers to abide by its core provisions equally and consistently or risk getting dragged into arbitration. “It helped create a level playing field, so it wasn’t just brands, by their own volition, doing all the work,” he said. “It [also] created a lot of clarity for everyone [about what] they had to comply with. And it created a collective leverage that put maximum pressure on the factories to remediate.”

Ineke Zeldenrust, the international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a witness signatory to the Accord, used the analogy of “trying to drive an engine without a car—you need both the RSC operation on the ground and a legally binding agreement on top.” Backsliding, she said, is not an option.

“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,” Zeldenrust told the press briefing. “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?”

Only Asos, Britain’s largest e-tailer, has responded in support of an “expanded and extended” legally binding contract that captures brand action on “transparency, financing of remediation, the complaints mechanism and the escalation protocol in case of supplier non-compliance.”

“We believe reaching [an] agreement between brands and trade unions on these obligations is essential, and the agreement should include the outcome,” it wrote in a letter to Labour Behind the Label, Clean Clothes Campaign’s U.K. arm.

H&M, one of the first brands to sign the Accord, said that it has seen “continuous progress” since the Accord ceded its responsibilities to the RSC, but declined to go into details since discussions were still taking place.

“We are now focused on securing the independence, resources and financing of this organization to secure workplace safety for all workers in Bangladesh,” said Masarrat Quader, who is responsible for stakeholder and public affairs in Bangladesh, told Sourcing Journal. “We are also actively taking part in negotiations on how to proceed when the transition period ends in May.”

Inditex, the world’s largest apparel company by sales and another Accord early adopter, did not respond to a request for comment.

Discount fashion chain Primark, one of the companies that sourced from Rana Plaza, and a signatory of the Accord, said it is aware negotiations over a new agreement are taking place.

“However [they] conclude, Primark is committed to ensuring continued safety and good working conditions in Bangladesh, as we have demonstrated both through our Ethical Trade program in the country and through our work with the Accord,” a spokesperson said, noting that the company established its own structural integrity program—developed by structural engineers and covering all factories in Bangladesh manufacturing products for Primark—in 2013.

“Our work in this area, which aims to help bring about sustainable positive change in the Bangladesh garment industry, is ongoing,” the spokesperson added.

Even so, the Accord involved more than bricks and mortar, noted Nazmer Akter, founder and executive director of workers-rights group Awaj Foundation. The framework included a complaints mechanism for workers to express grievances about workplace violence and excessive overtime or press for freedom of association and collective bargaining. “It’s not only the safety issues,” she told Sourcing Journal. “We got a lot of benefits.”

An Accord for all

Beyond Bangladesh, labor activists have been lobbying for an Accord that covers all garment-producing countries.

“It should be extended to the other Global South countries [that] are producing products and merchandise for brands,” said Nasir Mansoor, president of the National Trade Union Federation in Pakistan, where a fire ripped through a factory in Karachi, killing more than 250 people and seriously injuring five, just months before the Rana Plaza collapse. “We’re looking for a Bangladesh kind of Accord for Pakistan, but now, at the moment, brands are retreating from their responsibility.”

Though Rana Plaza was widely hailed as a never-again moment for the industry, death traps for garment workers are rife elsewhere. This year has already seen its share of tragedies. In February, 28 workers died in a flooded house that was being used as an illegal textile facility after heavy rains inundated the northern Moroccan city of Tangier. The following month, 20 people died and 24 were injured in an inferno that ravaged a four-story garment factory in the Al Qalyubia province north of Cairo. A few weeks after that, 25 people were killed and 75 others were injured when a 10-story building that housed an unlicensed garment factory imploded in Cairo’s Gesr El Suez district.

“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, told reporters. ”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.”

As human-rights due diligence gains legislative traction, investors, too, are paying attention. On Thursday, more than 170 global institutional investors, representing over $2.2 trillion in assets under management, exhorted brands and retailers to commit to a new agreement that includes the “essential elements of the Accord.” Without it, they said, there won’t be an enforcement mechanism that ensures the proper functioning of RSC or an independent organization to report on its performance.

The goal of transforming the Bangladesh garment sector into a safer, more equitable space is “being realized,” David Schilling, senior program director for human rights at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, said in a statement. Now is not the time for them to “abandon this proven model for effective supply-chain management,” he said.

“We urge companies that have been part of the Accord—and those that have yet to participate—to demonstrate leadership by committing to this agreement, not just for Bangladesh, but for all the countries where workers’ health, safety and livelihoods are put in jeopardy simply by going to work each day,” Schilling added.