The Bangladesh Accord: this week’s update

Bangladesh is the fourth largest garment exporter to the United States. The garment industry employs approximately 3.5 million people and accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports. These workers are subjected to some of the worst working circumstances in the business, including low pay, verbal and physical abuse, reprisal for campaigning for improved working conditions, and hazardous industrial environments.


Bangladesh's export value of ready-made garments (RMG) was estimated to be at US$27.95 billion in 2020. (Statista Research Department


Approximately 2,000 Bangladeshi employees have died in fires and building collapses since 2005. Many of these accidents could have been avoided if the conditions had been better. The Rana Plaza building collapsed in April 2013, killing 1,134 workers and becoming the most serious accident in the industry's history. JCPenney, The Children's Place, and Walmart all had factories at Rana Plaza. In the months preceding the collapse, many of these companies conducted audits of the factory, but these audits failed to identify or remedy the safety issues that would lead to disaster.


What is the Bangladesh Accord


The Bangladesh Accord is a five-year independent agreement involving major international brands, distributors, and labor unions in Bangladesh. It was signed on May 15, 2013. Its goal was to establish a safe and healthy Ready Made Garment (RMG) sector in Bangladesh.

The agreement has six major components:


  • A legally enforceable five-year agreement between brands and labor unions to provide a safe working environment in Bangladesh's RMG industry.
  • An impartial inspection program funded by brands and involving workers and trade unions.
  • All factories' inspection results and remedial action plans are made public (CAP)
  • A pledge by signatory brands to make adequate finances available for remediation and to continue sourcing ties.
  • All factories have democratically elected health and safety committees that identify and address health and safety hazards.
  • Worker empowerment is achieved by a comprehensive training program, a complaints procedure, and the right to decline risky work.

Who are the signatories to the Bangladesh Accord?


The 2018 Accord, which extended the original pact for another three years, has been signed by approximately 200 companies and retailers. H&M, Inditex, and UNIQLO, three of the world's four largest fashion stores, are among the signatories. These brands collectively supply from approximately 1,600 factories in Bangladesh, employing over two million people.




The Accord and the RSC



Nearly 130,000 safety infractions were discovered during inspections at these plants, ranging from structural deterioration to unsafe fire escape routes. The vast majority of these safety risks have been eradicated to date.

On June 1, 2020, the Bangladesh office of the Accord handed over its responsibilities to the Ready-Made-Garment Sustainability Council, a newly formed local entity (RSC). While the RSC was created to serve as the implementing agency for the Accord's mandated safety initiatives in Bangladesh in the future, it was never intended to take the role of the Accord itself. The Accord Agreement's brand obligations will continue in place and unmodified until the agreement's expiration, which is currently set for August 31, 2021—following the conclusion of a three-month extension. Unions and labor rights advocates have proposed a binding successor agreement that would continue the Accord model in Bangladesh—where it has averted hundreds, if not thousands, of worker deaths—and expand it to other countries where garment workers' lives are routinely put in danger, such as Pakistan, India, and Cambodia.


The Bangladesh Accord’s expiry and the implications


The Bangladesh accord expired in May, less than a decade after its commencement.  


However, with the agreement poised to expire, the hard-won safety benefits set in action by the agreements may be jeopardized. Brands, unions, and local manufacturers have been wrangling over a replacement agreement. All want a say in how Bangladesh polices its US$34 billion in clothing exports each year.


The unions publicly walked out on May 21, ten days before the original expiration date.


And, despite a last-minute agreement on Friday by the brands and unions involved to extend the negotiations by three months — in addition to the current accord commitments — the future of garment factory safety monitoring remains uncertain at a critical juncture for both Bangladesh and the global fashion industry.


Without the accord, there is no guarantee that working conditions will remain as they are. The environment was much improved following its implementation. 


The accord has also served to grant workers a voice and the assurance that they will be heard. If there’s a problem in their place of employment, the workers have the right to tell their factory supervisor that they will not be returning until the issue is fixed. Worker representatives can play important roles in Accord inspections and staff meetings.


According to Parvin Akter, who works as the assistant secretary of factory Ananta’s Apparel worker’s union, before the accord, it was not uncommon to come across sacks strewn all over the aisles and to have three machines in their workroom instead of one, simply getting out was hazardous as the workers would have to jump over one another to leave.


 Now Akter says with the obstructions gone and the workspace much safer, it is undeniable that workers have felt the positive effects of the accord.


With the binding effect of the accord no longer in place, certain brands regard the expiration as a chance to return to the voluntary approach to ensuring worker safety that was employed in the past. 


Rather than continue down the old path and sign a new agreement, several brands have suggested that the RMG Sustainability Council be in charge, but there would be no mechanism for accountability as worker safety is allowed to remain in the hands of the brand’s retailers and factory owners. The proposed voluntary initiative is just about the same thing that was in operation when the Rana plaza collapse took place.


A functional system the workers are able to rely on has been enforced, compensation fees are paid, required evacuations are carried out, and factories are not reopened until the issues have been resolved. Prior to the Rana Plaza disaster, brands had complaint mechanisms that were never employed because solutions were never provided.


Suppose these brands are not legally required to provide funds to improve the safety of the factories or sign-extended agreements with their suppliers. In that case, it is possible the tangible results that have been witnessed over the past eight years just might cease to continue.


All of this goes beyond Bangladesh as the accord also stood as a model for enforceable worker standards to other nations around the world. Placing brand commitment to worker safety within a legal framework provided Bangladeshi workers with eight years of notable progress, saving the lives of thousands and showing other countries that brand accountability is an attainable goal in the apparel industry.



A New Accord


For the past two years, worker representatives were pushing for the creation of a long-term successor pact for the accord.  Even though a massive range of success has been achieved in safety improvements since the conception of the accord, there are still factories where worker lives continue to be endangered.


In order to complete the industry overhaul begun by the accord, as well as to ensure that the improvements and regular maintenance required for good working conditions are continued, a new agreement had to be drafted and enforced.


The original components of the Accord had to be preserved to make sure the new agreement would be effective. These include the right to subject retailers and brands to legal actions if the safety measures of their factories fell below the required standards, as well the supervision of the training of the safety committee by the RSC with particular emphasis on the pact remaining legally binding.

 

Fortunately, the three-month extension that was obtained as the expiration date drew closer was to preserve the state of affairs and provide more time to hammer out and fine-tune the details of a successor agreement. 


A new agreement was released a little over a week ago, and as expected, it contained the primary elements that made up the foundation for the previous accord. The new agreement is called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry and will only remain viable for 26 months.


The first confirmed signature was from Swedish retailer H&M, swiftly followed by mega fashion retailer Inditex with more brands expected to join in as time goes on. 


Although a lot of manufacturers did not believe a new accord needed to be created with the RSC  in existence, with apparel factory owners voicing complaints about the challenges they could encounter, most of the worker unions and labor leaders are satisfied with the newly launched initiative.


The majority agreed that the benefits of signing the new accord would bring in relation to the conservation of worker health and safety rights and a reduction in third-party interference in cases of worker safety.


The Accord and You

Consumers must demand information about what businesses are doing right now to reduce risks to workers and populations. This does not imply inquiring about the initiatives to which they have committed. It entails inquiring about the processes they have in place to ensure that their prices allow for proper wages, identify grievances and root causes, and hold suppliers accountable. It entails asking independent experts if those processes are effective.

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