"In the four years since Rana Plaza, the ready-made garment sector has gone from global basket case to a global model of innovation and transformation"

"In the four years since Rana Plaza, the ready-made garment sector has gone from global basket case to a global model of innovation and transformation"

Just a little over four years after the Bangladesh Rana Plaza building collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers, key participants in the global garment supply chain met in New York City to assess progress in protecting garment worker safety, and brainstorm steps to ensuring future progress.

The meeting, part of Cornell University's New Conversations Project, brought together academics, labour activists and executives of producing, trading and retail companies for a roundtable discussion. It focused, in part, on the extent to which industry responses to the disaster have helped improve worker conditions in Bangladesh and other countries prominent on the list of apparel sources.

A model of transformation

"In the four years since Rana Plaza, the ready-made garment sector has gone from global basket case to a global model of innovation and transformation," argued Jennifer Bair, a professor of the sociology of globalisation at the University of Virginia, USA. "After Rana, there was a real fear that there would be a mass exodus [of companies doing business] from Bangladesh," she added, attributing the recovery of the country's garment sector in part to the steps taken by Bangladesh's government and suppliers and retail brands in the wake of the tragedy.

As Bair related, the passage in July 2013 of a National Tripartite Plan of Action for Bangladesh's RMG sector – a commitment between the Bangladesh government, the European Union (EU) and the US – led to the implementation by September 2015 of regulations mandating that facilities employing more than 50 workers establish elected safety committees, and changing registration procedures for unions.

The meeting also heard updates on how retail brands in the US and Europe, concerned that adverse publicity about the disaster at Rana Plaza, and fires at other Bangladeshi facilities, might prompt a consumer backlash, had established their two five-year binding agreements – the Accord and the Alliance. Participating factories now account for about 2,300 of the more than 7,000 garment factories estimated to be in operation in the country, the meeting was told.

Moreover, Bair stressed that the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, the largely EU-centred five-year agreement signed in May 2013, now has the participation of more than 200 companies (including the UK's Marks & Spencer and Abercrombie & Fitch in the US), and more than 1,600 factories employing 2m workers. It reports that remediation is complete at 61 factories and at least 90% complete in another 400. In addition, more than 300 joint management labour safety committees are being trained to work on a day-to-day basis under the scheme.

The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a smaller five-year agreement, currently has the participation of 29 US retail brands including Macy's, Walmart and Gap Inc, and some 676 factories employing nearly 1.2m workers. And while remediation is supposed to be complete in July 2018, the group reported to the meeting that there was now a 75.2% completion rate for all necessary remediations and a 23.8% "in progress" score.

"Not a single garment worker has perished in an Alliance Factory since our remediation work began," the group stated in its four-year Rana anniversary commemoration.

A moving target

But Bair and others at the conference agreed that the challenges are daunting, particularly if the Accord and the Alliance are to complete their work by next year.

"New factories are being added all the time, so it's really a moving target," said Bair. "The private sector initiatives are due to expire in July 2018, and by the first quarter of 2018 all inspections are to be complete. That's an extremely optimistic scenario."

"There's a long way to go in terms of continuing what's been left behind," Bair told the gathering, citing what she called "a need for a sustained commitment".

Edgar Romney, secretary-treasurer of labour group Workers United, also questioned whether progress can be sustained in the struggle to protect Bangladesh garment workers. "There's widespread agreement that the industry is safer than what it had been at the time of Rana Plaza," he acknowledged. At the same time, he said, "the vast majority" of onlookers "don't believe that all these [remediations] will be completed by July 2018," he said.

"Independent oversight will be needed after 2018," he said, arguing that the progress seen on the labour front in Bangladesh has been less than stellar. "Unions continue to have difficulty in organising. The labour union movement is growing but it's still very small and still very fragmented," and in the absence of worker strength "completing factory remediation will require continued pressure from brands".

But pressure from brands may in fact require pressure from consumers, who are also concerned about other issues, particularly sustainability, participants at the meeting said. "We haven't seen a consumer movement that is pushing companies" on behalf of garment worker labour and safety, said one major clothing company executive.

Retailers, labour and sustainability activists need to work together to chart further progress, particularly after 2018, he said, adding that "there is a kind of widespread agreement that [individual company] auditing is insufficient".

Shawn Islam, CEO and managing director of the Ambattur-Sparrow Group of Industries, a company that employs 11,000 workers, chiefly in Bangladesh, and whose retail clients include The Gap, Ann Taylor and American Eagle Outfitters, said that since starting a joint initiative with The Gap in 2012, it has installed sprinkler systems and fire doors and has accumulated 300 trained staff with fire training certificates.

"We cannot depend on similar progress" occurring throughout his country's garment sector without continued pressure from the outside, he admitted. But added, "if the brands are behind them this can happen".

By themselves, "human rights advocates and corporations have actually made precious little progress," said Bruce Raynor, president emeritus of Workers United and currently a principal of R&S Associates LLC, a New York-based consulting firm. The pressure to improve workers' lot needs to come from the grassroots, he argued. "The result of all this agitation and debate has been a substantial improvement in conditions for workers."

One executive said that while public relations between brands and activists may have been contentious in the past, lower profile interactions with unions and worker groups may prove valuable going forward. He said there are labour organisations and other groups that may publicly take a stance against brands but privately, they are far more supportive. "We have to have this conversation," he said. "For too long we haven't spoken privately or publicly."