In July 2021, the fate of the Bangladesh Accord remains uncertain. The nearly two hundred international fashion brands that are currently signed on to the Accord are negotiating with global and local Bangladeshi unions to see what happens next. Each brand has until August 31st to make a decision.

The Bangladesh Accord on Health and Safety, forged in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013, has been the most successful factory safety program in the global apparel supply chain, saving the lives of over two million garment workers through independent factory safety inspections, remediation of problems found by the independent inspectorate, safety training programs for workers in factories, a worker complaints process, transparent reporting of all aspects of the Accord programs, and accountability by apparel brands and their suppliers.

For the first time in the country’s history, international brands sourcing from Bangladesh, including H&M and PVH (of Tommy Hilfiger fame), individually signed on to an enforceable binding agreement with global and Bangladeshi unions to keep safe the factories that produced their clothes. What made the Accord so effective these past eight years have been the independent inspectors who run the program and the Accord’s legal “power to force brands to pay for safety renovations and to pull business from factories that refuse to carry them out.”

The Accord was so successful that brands signed a Transition Accord after the initial 2018 expiration date and agreed to an extension in 2020 after push back from Bangladeshi manufacturers, albeit in a revised model that transitioned inspections, remediation and workplace programs to the Bangladesh based RSC — on the condition that the RSC remain monitored and verified by the international Accord secretariat made up of representatives of international and Bangladeshi unions.

“The RSC was created by the Accord through negotiations with the Bangladeshi garment industry in order to include factory owners as stakeholders, with the understanding of a new legally-binding agreement between unions and brands to succeed the Accord.” The RSC was never meant to be a replacement for the Accord, and the new binding agreement was hoped to be negotiated and signed by May 31st  2021.

Worth noting is that in 2020, the Accord’s brands and labor unions agreed to retain the successful Accord model: an agreement that holds each individual brand signatory legally accountable for worker safety in the Bangladeshi factories that manufacture apparel for that brand, keeps the independent secretariat in place to oversee each brand’s compliance, and allows for expansion to other countries.

Brand Statements: H&M, Aldi, C&A, and Others

In the interval between the start of the RSC and May 31st, 2021, many of the Accord’s brand signatories have changed their minds. As a result, an agreement could not be reached and negotiations will continue until the end of August. Although negotiations are closed to outsiders and most brands have refused to say what they will do, their unwillingness to make a commitment to continue and expand on the Accord model is evident in other public statements they’ve made.

H&M

“We understand the ask that the Unions have with regards to direct brand accountability,” wrote a representative of H&M when invited by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center to comment on Unfinished Business: Outstanding safety hazards at garment factories show that the Accord must be extended and expanded, a report by Accord witness signatories that calls for the continuation and expansion of the Accord model in light of a number of uncorrected safety hazards in Bangladeshi garment factories making clothes for 12 Accord brand signatories — including H&M. The company’s representative committed to supporting the RSC and its structure, in which unions are “equal partners” with brands and suppliers, but those brands and Bangladeshi manufacturers would not be not be overseen by a secretariat independent from the corporate fashion industry supply chain. Essentially, under this model there would be no one to hold brands legally accountable for the safety of their suppliers’ garment factories.

ALDI North and ALDI South

Other brand and retailer signatories sent letters that were equally non-committal. Aldi North and South stated: “We are committed to factory safety in Bangladesh and are therefore joining the Brands Association to secure the future work of the RSC. We hope that unions will remain a member of the RSC and will continue negotiations on a future oriented agreement that reflects the new RSC structure.” The Brands Association represents the brands in the RSC Board, but no one would be monitoring the RSC Board.

Lidl and Lindex

The responses from Lidl and Lindex also relied on their commitment to the RSC and say nothing about a legally binding agreement.

C&A

C&A cites the work of their “dedicated team in Bangladesh, including our own fire and safety engineer working very closely with the Bangladesh Accord for the past 8 years” as proof of the company’s commitment to safety in their Bangladeshi supply chain. However, reverting to a voluntary monitoring system in the future could lead to the same kind of system that created Rana Plaza and the 2012 Tazreen factory fire. C&A, which sourced from the Tazreen factory, now pays for administration of the Tazreen Claims Administrative Trust, which oversees distribution of funds to the families of those 117 workers killed in the fire and workers who were injured—many of whom sustain injuries that permanently impair their ability to work. C&A has also donated $1 million to the fund.

C&A’s letter concludes with the statement “The garment sector in Bangladesh has been transformed within the last decade thanks to the high degree of commitment from all the stakeholders… We believe the best way to continue supporting this transformation is ensuring we learn from this success with the support of all stakeholders involved.” But what has C&A learned? The letter says nothing about the company’s continued support for the Accord’s obviously successful model or its expansion to other countries.

Varner Group

Varner Group‘s response simply dismissed the Unfinished Business report and said nothing at all about the company’s future commitment to ensuring worker safety in its Bangladeshi supply chain.

PVH & WE Fashion

PVH and WE Fashion gave no response at all.

The Accord Model Is as Vital as Ever

In light of recent accidents in Bangladeshi factories, these brands’ lack of commitment to a legally binding agreement that holds them responsible for worker safety in the factories where their clothes are made is frightening. In March of this year, a fire broke out at the chemical warehouse of Dhaka Garments and Washing Ltd., a garment factory twenty-five miles north of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city. One garment worker died and 42 workers fell ill after inhaling toxic gas, while “others sustained minor injuries while attempting to run for safety.” In May, five workers sustained burn injuries from a knitting factory fire in Narayanganj’s Sonargaon upazila.

This June, two workers from a dye house just outside of Dhaka died after sustaining burns from a boiler accident that injured a total of five workers. According to Christie Miedema, Campaign and Outreach coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), which is an Accord witness signatory, boiler inspections were initially not part of the Accord program. “There wasn’t enough capacity nationally to do that, but we recognized that this was a big problem after new boiler explosions. We were really happy when the pilot program took place but we’re very concerned now that there’s not enough follow up [by the RSC].”

Another point of discussion in the new binding agreement negotiations allowing for expansion of the agreement to other countries was also absent from many of the statements released by brand signatories in their response to the Unfinished Business report.

This silence is heartbreaking in light of recent garment factory accidents in other countries. At the end of May, four textile workers in India burned to death in a knitting factory fire because the exit door was locked. An electrical short circuit caused a major fire at the Al-Awal garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan. Luckily, all the workers had a day off when the fire occurred, but workers in an Egyptian clothing factory were at work when a fire broke out this past March, killing at least 20 people and injuring 24 others. One month earlier, a flood in an illegal garment factory in Morocco killed 28 workers. Needless to say, the factory did not meet necessary health and safety standards.

Eight years ago, fashion brands signed the Bangladesh Accord within the first month after the Rana Plaza building collapse killed over 1,100 garment workers and injured thousands more. Rana Plaza was only one of many tragic, preventable garment factory accidents in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry up until that time. After the collapse, world media attention focused on all the parties that turned their backs on Rana Plaza’s obvious structural problems including, most egregiously, the brands that were sourcing from garment factories in the building. Horrific media images from the collapse angered consumers around the world and shamed companies like H&M into signing the Accord within a week of its inception. Approximately 200 brands and retailers followed suit within a couple of months, and new brand signatories continued to sign on for years.

“In 2013, and for the several years that followed, everyone knew that all eyes were on them,” says Laura Gutierrez, South Asia Field Director for Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), who was at work in Bangladesh before Rana Plaza and after the Accord’s inception. “Bangladesh manufacturers and international brands had to demonstrate that they were taking [the Accord] seriously. They were under tremendous public pressure and were responsive. The Accord brought real structural changes to buildings,” including simple things like fire doors and unlocked exits, “that weren’t there before 2013.”

“Now, years later, there’s less public pressure, fewer eyes on Bangladesh. I think that we’ve seen over the last year [after the Covid 19 pandemic hit] a slow but steady backsliding. We are seeing, as we sadly expected, a number of fires happening in factories, preventable fires, preventable injuries and deaths to workers.”

The Cost of Safety

“Brands have been saying, it’s been a terrible year,” says Christie Miedema. Over a year ago, in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic, international brands wreaked financial havoc on their supply chains by ruthlessly cutting orders, refusing to pay or delaying payment of orders already completed, and pushing new orders with huge price cuts — all tactics that have left many Bangladeshi garment workers struggling to survive with no job security. These tactics show that brands readily put their own financial gain above the lives of garment workers in their supply chain.

So do the recent Accord negotiations. Financially speaking, the present, legally binding Accord model also costs brand signatories a certain amount of money that they would not have to spend if they reverted back to a pre-Rana Plaza voluntary compliance model with the RSC.

Signatory brands have had to pay an annual fee to fund the Accord secretariat. In 2019, brands sourcing apparel worth $500 million U.S. dollars or more from 80 or more Bangladeshi factories paid an Accord fee of $227,550 US dollars. The smallest brands paid a $615 fee. This amount isn’t nothing. In addition, one brand paid a settlement of over $2 million for its delays in remediating life-threatening hazards in its suppliers’ factories. The majority of that money made more than 150 factories safe and prevented the death of countless garment workers.

The cost of Accord fees and settlements are relatively low when compared to the price a brand would have to pay to compensate for the human lives lost in a factory accident like Rana Plaza, Tazreen, or the Ali Enterprises factory fire in Pakistan — not to mention the price a brand would have to pay repair the damage to its reputation.

One Accord brand signatory, KiK, paid over $5 million in compensation to victims of the Ali Enterprises Fire and $150,000 to the Tazreen Trust Fund, as well as $1 million to support victims of Rana Plaza. “They are now one of the staunchest supporters of a new binding agreement,” says Christie Miedema, “because they know what it means.”

Four other Accord signatory brands, Zeemans, Tchibo, G-Star, and ASOS, also put out public statements in support of a new binding agreement with the crucial elements proposed by the unions.

In a recent letter to Labor Behind the Label, ASOS states:

“We agree to sign an extended and expanded agreement on the condition that the Agreement fulfils certain criteria…Firstly, the Agreement must specify the brand’s obligations to ensure that the Accord standard, provisions and protocols can continue to be implemented…Secondly, the Agreement must come in the form of a negotiated and legally binding contract between the brand and GUFs [Global Unions], with enforcement possible between the GUF and each individual brand…Thirdly, the Agreement must establish an independent secretariat, governed and overseen by both parties equally, just like the current Accord Foundation secretariat.”

This letter is the clearest statement in support of the Accord model by a brand signatory.

“You can look through and get bogged down with the language that brands are and aren’t using in their letters” says Laura Gutierrez. “But what the letters really demonstrate to us, [the Accord witness signatories] is a reluctance to extend and expand the Accord model. We can expect that brands will, on their own, come up with some alternative that claims to protect worker safety. But it’s dangerous and wrong to separate the Accord success from the model. You cannot have a successful safety initiative unless it is binding, unless it’s independent, and in the case of the Accord, that it provides the opportunity to expand to other countries. That’s how I most simply put it.”

Image: Tareq Salahuddin/Flickr

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