The group is assessing the ability of the Bangladesh Government to take over the regulatory role of the Accord

The group is assessing the ability of the Bangladesh Government to take over the regulatory role of the Accord

Talks are underway between global unions and a number of signatories of the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh over a possible continuation of the agreement, or the formation of a new one, with a potential launch expected as early as next month.

The Accord was set up in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013, in which over 1,100 garment workers lost their lives. However, its five-year term will end in June 2018 – and in a media call last week the group said it would not be able to complete remediation work within the stipulated deadline.

Speaking to just-style, Jenny Holdcroft, assistant general secretary of IndustriAll Global Union, says talks have been ongoing for the last six months between a number of Accord signatories to discuss what happens when the tenure is up and to assess the ability and readiness of the Bangladesh Government to take over the regulatory role the Accord has been playing.

"The assessment of the unions, the brands and the ILO is that the government is not yet ready to take on this role and that work still needs to be done," she explains. "In light of that, there is a clear commitment, both on our side and the brands' side, to look at what a continuation or new agreement to keep the Accord work going would look like."

The severity of the Rana Plaza disaster meant the Accord was pulled together relatively quickly as a means of providing immediate remediation. Now, Holdcroft says, there is "more time to look at what needs to be fixed" in light of the experiences of the last four years.

Those fixes, she says, will include areas such as how to handle disputes, the adjustment of wording, plus an emphasis on freedom of association to ensure the empowerment of workers to be able to address health and safety issues.

"Freedom of association is a key demand on the union side because what we've seen is that the intention of the original Accord in terms of worker empowerment will not be fulfilled unless freedom of association is addressed because we know worker empowerment on health and safety is absolutely critical to sustainability and lasting change. But we equally see, in the Bangladeshi context, constant push-back on freedom of association rights. So we are taking into these negotiations a clear demand for the Accord itself to take account of the need for freedom of association to be recognised in order for it to fulfil its purpose."

Realistically, however, Holdcroft says very little will change in terms of adjusting the current agreement, because of the need for the work that has started to continue in the same vein.

"What we want is for the Accord work to continue, we want to strengthen the hand-over to the government. The Accord is currently supporting the national effort in terms of capacity building, and in the next iteration of the Accord we would step up that work as that is the ultimate aim: to give the government the capacity to do this work. That will be a new element that wasn't there before. It was only referenced previously, but the urgency is there now that we want to see some positive steps from the government."

Holdcroft says that once an agreement is in place they will approach the government on what it expects for the hand-over, as well as undertaking discussions with other organisations such as the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).

As to whether all of the signatories to the current Accord will sign up to a potential new agreement, Holdcroft is optimistic. 

"The Accord is an individual agreement between each brand and organisation so we hope to have a content at the end of the day that the majority of the existing Accord brands will want to sign to continue the work."

She adds: "We have been in discussions for some time. We don't have the result of those negotiations yet, we are still deep in them, but it could [launch] in the next month. We want to provide certainty about what our intentions are. We have a staff of 200 people in Dhaka so we have to manage the process in a responsible way. We need to bring it to a conclusion fairly quickly."

To date, around 77% of the safety hazards identified by the Accord in initial inspections were reported or verified as having been fixed, and its Safety Committee and Safety Training Programme now covers 482 factories with more than 1m workers.

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