With a groundbreaking workplace safety agreement for the garment industry poised to expire once more, labor advocates are urging the world’s biggest brands to stick by the “never again” promises they made when the Rana Plaza factory complex came crashing down in 2013, killing 1,134 people near Dhaka in Bangladesh.
Among them is Zara owner Inditex, the world’s largest apparel retailer by revenue and an early signatory of the Accord for Fire and Building and Safety in Bangladesh, which prompted an unprecedented flurry of inspection and remediation activity in an effort to stave off future disasters in the South Asian nation.
Like fellow Accord members Bestseller, C&A, H&M, Lindex and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp.—which organizations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Worker Rights Consortium called out in May for using factories with inadequate fire alarms, sprinkler systems or emergency exits—Inditex’s suppliers have “unfinished business” that threatens to negate the hard-won gains of the past eight years.
More specifically, though 54 factories producing for the company have completed 92 percent of the safety renovations required by the Accord’s engineers, a “staggering” 40 lack verified fire alarms, 38 are missing verified fire-suppression systems such as sprinklers and 35 have insufficient emergency exits. At least nine, the labor groups said, still pose high-risk but easily correctible safety hazards that require immediate attention, such as boxes and other obstructions blocking exits and locks on external doors.
Because Inditex, a member of the Accord’s steering committee, doesn’t publish a full list of its suppliers, the organizations were unable to discern what fraction of the company’s Bangladesh base those 54 factories represent.
Inditex, which also owns the Bershka, Massimo Dutti and Pull&Bear brands, told the Clean Clothes Campaign last month that it‘s in favor of a new agreement, but whether it follows through on its statement “remains to be seen,” labor advocates said. Equally important, they said, Inditex has made no commitment to expand the Accord to its other sourcing countries, such as India, Morocco and Pakistan, where workers also face omnipresent life-threatening safety risks.
“The brands negotiating a new binding safety agreement must realize that workers’ lives are at risk when they try to bargain on crucial principles that enabled the Accord’s success,” Christie Miedema, outreach coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement.
The Accord has proven so effective because each signatory brand is “individually legally responsible to ensure its supplier factories are made safe,” she added. “As a steering committee member, Inditex is well-positioned to ensure that this individual legal accountability remains a prerequisite for participation in the safety program.”
Experts say that failing to renew and extend the Accord would mean a return to the voluntary codes of conduct and self-monitoring that resulted in the Rana Plaza collapse. A recent fire at a food and beverage factory east of Dhaka, which killed 52 workers, including children as young as 11, they note, should serve as a warning of the disasters that await if regulatory guardrails are no longer in place.
“A gruesome mass fatality fire in a food-processing factory in Bangladesh last week once more showed what is at risk in these negotiations,” said Laura Gutierrez, South Asia field director at Worker Rights Consortium. “The Accord has decreased the likelihood of a tragedy like this happening in a garment factory, but the work is not done. In dozens of Inditex factories, workers still risk not being able to make their way out of the building during a fire. This tragedy provides a heart-rending preview of the human devastation the Accord’s dissolution would yield.”
Inditex, which signed the interim agreement extending negotiations, says it is committed to securing fire, building and electrical safety “in the long term.” It also sees an opportunity for the Ready-made Garments Sustainability Council, the tripartite body of factory owners, brands and labor unions that has taken on most of the responsibilities of the Accord on the ground, to become an “industry standard throughout Bangladesh’s garment sector now and in the future,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.
“Inditex strongly supports establishing a new agreement with clear accountability for all parties, which is enforceable for individual brands, and has independent oversight,” the spokesperson added.