In the aftermath of the Bangladesh Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, two initiatives were set up to oversee the country’s clothing factories for fire, electrical and structural issues – the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The Accord’s tenure comes to an end next month, and there are serious concerns for garment workers if another agreement is not signed soon.

Under the oversight of the Accord and Alliance, Bangladesh now has one of the safest and most transparent ready-made garment (RMG) industries in the world. But that could now under threat.

After an initial five-year term, the remit of the Accord’s remit was extended until the end of May 2021. Its technical responsibilities have transitioned to the national RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), which was set up last year, but brands and retailers have no legally binding obligation to it. And while there have been discussions to renegotiate the Accord, nothing has yet been agreed or signed.

“In this current situation, where we are running up against the clock, where the Accord has been such a successful programme, it is really on the brink of not continuing because of the current refusal of the brands to continue with an agreement that goes along the same lines and principles of the one we have now,” Alke Boessiger, head of commerce department at UNI Global Union, signatory to the Bangladesh Accord, told a panel discussion last week hosted by the Clean Clothes Campaign and facilitated by the Worker Rights Consortium.

“There is no doubt, in the years since 2013, there has been a lot of progress made in Bangladesh, but the RSC does not have the same accountability, the same enforcement mechanisms, to hold brands accountable like we have in the Accord. This question of holding individual brands accountable for their supply chains is an important one. We cannot do that with just the RCS. We need a global agreement with the brands and the unions.”

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According to the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), the Accord has driven “phenomenal change” over the last eight years, inspecting over 1,600 factories and improving the safety of more than 2m workers. According to Clean Clothes Campaign, over 120,000 safety hazards have been corrected.

“If we’d had an Accord before Rana Plaza, we could’ve saved all those lives,” says Kalpona Akter, president of the BGIWF and founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). “Under the Accord the worker’s voice has been included, so the workers could tell very freely how they feel when they are working in the factory, if there is a crack in the building or a fire door was needed. This is the first time the worker has been recognised as a human, not like the equipment in the factories.

“If there is no binding accountability then [the RSC] will not be credible at all and unions will likely pull out. That is very loud and clear. The unions will not be with anything where it has no legal obligation or workers voices cannot be heard.”

Last month, the European Parliament adopted a report calling on the Commission to propose legislation forcing companies to fix human rights in their supply chains. It calls for the urgent adoption of a binding EU law that ensures companies are held accountable and liable when they harm – or contribute to harming – human rights, the environment and good governance.

Yet Christina Hajagos Clausen, garment director at IndustriAll global union, a signatory to the Bangladesh Accord, notes that increased calls for companies to exercise due diligence for all parts of their operations are exactly in line with what the Accord has been doing: “They had to take responsibility for all their suppliers in Bangladesh. That was possible because we had a legally binding agreement that held them accountable for everything they were doing.

“The new legislation is going to impose that on all the brands, and having an agreement like the Accord, which we want to continue and expand into other countries, it’s the perfect tool for companies to comply with these calls for legislation because it requires companies to develop internal systems, internal mechanisms, to really have control over their supply chains.

“For companies to sign on to a new successor agreement of the Accord and to expand it with us into other countries is what they should be doing if they want to be in line with these calls for due diligence legislation in Europe.”

A blueprint for international adoption

Alongside negotiations between unions and brands to extend the Accord in Bangladesh, there are also discussions to expand it to other countries where building and worker safety is threatened. For instance Pakistan.

Nasir Mansoor, president of the National Trade Union Federation in Pakistan, a strong advocate for decisive binding action on workplace safety in the country, told the panel he would like to see the initiative extended to other merchandise producing countries.

“In Pakistan we are working with IndustriAll and Clean Clothes looking for a Bangladesh-style Accord. At the moment brands are detracting from their responsibility. We saw that in the Covid situation. The workers’ conditions are worsening, so the only way to resolve the issues in the RMG sector is to have some kind of binding treaty with the brands.

“When there is pressure on the brands they accept responsibility; when there isn’t they don’t accept it. So we need some kind of joint strategy and we force, somehow, the brands to fulfil their commitment. I learnt from Rana Plaza and Ali Enterprises that if we don’t have the strength and unified actions, the brands will always try to escape their responsibilities. If we want workers to get something from the brands and make them commit we need some kind of binding treaty and agreement otherwise it can’t work.”

Boessiger says it is important the lessons, protocols and processes of the Accord are taken and built on for other countries.

“Of course, we need to see in each country who are the local stakeholders. Each will have different governance. What is important is that all stakeholders are involved, like the workers, the unions, the brands buying from the country and the governments. We want the government on board from the beginning. Let’s take the successful with us, but let’s adapt it with each country with all the local stakeholders.”

Global call

Unions and industry organisations are now calling on brands to sign a global agreement that will take the work of the Accord into the future and remove any risk of a return to self-monitoring.

“In March alone this year 40 garment workers in Egypt and Morocco lost their lives in unsafe factories,” says Clausen. “So our call as global unions is to sign a global agreement that we can take the best lessons learnt from Bangladesh, a proven safety programme that we have collectively done a lot of work on, that this is the right way forward. Factory problems are not new to this industry and we don’t think the issues around safety should be put to the side right now. Right now is the time to move forward with the global agreement. It would be legally binding and that is the key component to this next step that we need. It is important to workers globally to be able to go to work safely.”

Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign, says brands are proposing a new agreement that will not be legally binding, and has no independent secretariat to oversee compliance.

“Under the guise of setting up a new structure, what is happening is a return to self monitoring. Between these two things, the dismantling of the independent secretariat and the unions no longer being able to take brands to court, two of the key features of the Accord success will be removed.

“I find it incredible that in the context of Covid, and in light of all the other problems plaguing the industry in Bangladesh and in other countries, that eight years on we have to fight again to keep in existence the one programme we all agree is functional.”

To mark the eighth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, industry executives have also spoken with just-style about why there is No room for complacency on Bangladesh worker safety.