On March 6, 2021, a chemical warehouse of the Gaziapur garment factory Dhaka Garments and Washing Ltd, caught fire, killing one worker of toxic asphyxiation, and seriously injuring forty-five others. The Dhaka Tribune reported on the accident, stating that “workers alleged that the authorities refused to allow them to leave the factory during the incident.”

Two months after the Dhaka Garments and Washing fire, a leak in a gas pipeline at a dyeing factory in Sonargaon upazila region of Narayanganj in Bangladesh resulted in five burn injuries for workers at the Niki Dyeing Printing and Finishing Mills site. Fire department officials speculate that “a leak in the pipeline might have caused gas to accumulate inside the closed factory which then resulted in the fire, triggered from an electric spark.” Specifics are still pending investigation, but current estimates from the Bangladesh Textile Mills Association place production capacities of the dyeing mill at around 15 million metres annually.

These aren’t solitary incidents, and it’s no secret that supply chain labor abuse runs rampant in Bangladesh. South Asian and South East Asian countries have emerged as garment manufacturing and subcontracting hubs operating on the model of underpaid labor and overextended production capacities common in garment-producing centers. In 2013, the extent of this labor model was brought under massive scrutiny with the collapse of the notorious Rana Plaza factory.

The day before the Rana Plaza building collapsed, local news reports had uncovered cracks in the building, as well as generally unsafe working conditions. While the office spaces were evacuated, the unregistered factory stayed open with the managers requiring workers to show up, threatening withheld payments for worker absences. On the 24th of April, the factory collapsed with over 3,122 factory workers inside the building. With press coverage of the garment workers trapped inside, the Rana Plaza factory disaster marked a significant shift in public awareness regarding the level of human rights abuses occurring within outsourced supply chains of the fashion industry. More than 29 global brands were implicated in the Rana Plaza disaster. Among the most notable ones are: Inditex (Zara), JCPenney, Kik, Benetton, Mango, Primark, The Children’s Place, and Walmart.

The pattern of labor abuse and industrial disasters has continued beyond Bangladesh. A 2015 McKinsey survey reported: “The next two up-and-coming countries are Vietnam and India, where, respectively, 59 percent and 54 percent of surveyed CPOs [Chief Production Officers]  plan to increase their sourcing value in the next five years.” Indeed, since 2015, labor and workplace conditions in these countries have exponentially gotten worse, all while brands centralize their supply chains in what they know, and admittedly seem to prefer, to be unethical and abusive labor conditions. India, Pakistan, and Vietnam boast supply chains of migrant workers with minimal job security and workplace safety measures, making them all the more attractive to brands that prioritize profit over people.

What is the Bangladesh Accord?

In the wake of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, more than 200 international apparel brands and Bangladeshi trade unions came together to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord — an independent legal contract that ensures workplace safety standards across all Ready Made Garment (RMG) factories.

The Accord addressed concrete measures to help prevent events like Rana Plaza from happening in the future. In particular, it constructed a fire and building safety program built upon a three-step process of inspection, remediation, and safety training. Notably, the governance structure of the Accord was designed to equally represent trade unions and companies in order to fully support and standardize the existing infrastructure of garment manufacturing.

The Accord specifically targeted Bangladesh’s RMG sector — notorious for its range of labor abuse and hazardous workplace environments — with workers often left harassed, unpaid, and forced to work in buildings that regularly failed safety checks. The Accord addressed concrete measures to help prevent events like Rana Plaza from happening in the future. In particular, it constructed a fire and building safety program built upon a three-step process of inspection, remediation, and safety training. Notably, the governance structure of the Accord was designed to equally represent trade unions and companies in order to fully support and standardize the existing infrastructure of garment manufacturing.

“The signatories shall appoint an Advisory Board involving brands and retailers, suppliers, government institutions, trade unions, and NGOs. The advisory board will ensure all stakeholders, local and international, can engage in constructive dialogue with each other and provide feedback and input to the SC [Steering Committee], thereby enhancing quality, efficiency, credibility and synergy.” Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

To this end, the Accord outlines recourse and resolution avenues for disputes within the garment labor force ultimately holding the brands at the top of the supply chain accountable to the voice of the garment worker and for addressing any safety issues within the supply chain, whether directly or indirectly. Signatory companies are required by the Accord to ensure inspection of supplier factories, to maintain regular income for all garment workers within their supply chains even in the condition of temporary factory repairs, and most importantly, protect the rights of the worker. This includes providing workers who have been terminated from work due to the cancellation of orders with comparable employment opportunities, and it further includes the protection of the right of the worker to refuse work they deem reasonably unsafe without consequent loss to their income or discrimination of pay. This, the Accord outlines, “includ[es] the right to refuse to enter or to remain inside a building that he or she has reasonable justification to believe is unsafe for occupation.”

“The one thing I’ve experienced after the Accord started working here is that our workers have a voice now. If there’s a crack in the building they can say ‘no’ to the factory managers, ‘I will not come back until you fix it.’” — Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity

It is, as mandated by the Accord, ultimately the brands’ responsibility to be accountable for supply chain ethicality within the Bangladeshi garment manufacturing industry.

Where is the Accord now?

To contend with the rampant labor abuse in Bangladesh, there has been a concerted and pressing effort to renew and update the existing Bangladeshi Accord, which although has seen massive success in standardizing ethical industrial norms, still has room to expand its protections. After expiration in 2018, the Bangladeshi Accord was further extended for three years — originally set to expire again in May 2021. Three days prior to the 2021 expiration date, it was announced by signatories that negotiations for an amended Accord were still ongoing, and the date of expiration would be pushed to August 31, 2021.

To contend with the rampant labor abuse in Bangladesh, there has been a concerted and pressing effort to renew and update the existing Bangladeshi Accord, which although has seen massive success in standardizing ethical industrial norms, still has room to expand its protections.

As of 2018, 101 brands signed onto the Accord successfully and established the following protections for 2 million workers at 1,200 factories in Bangladesh:

1) Legally-binding agreement between brands & trade unions

2) Independent safety inspections & remediation program

3) Brand commitment to ensure safety remediation is completed & financially feasible

4) Disclosure of inspection reports & corrective action plans

5) Safety Committee and Safety Training Program Safety and Health Complaints Mechanism

6) Protection of right to refuse unsafe work

7) Ongoing promotion of right to Freedom of Association to advance safety

8) Optional listing of home textiles and fabric & knit accessory suppliers

Immediate successes of the Accord served to hold multinational apparel corporations accountable, under a $2.3 million settlement, for repair payments to remedy the hazardous and life-threatening factories within their supply chain. In 2018, the Accord inspections resulted in identifying 118,500 fire hazards within 1,687 factories covered by the Accord. More than 83% were immediately repaired.

“The brands that have signed the 2018 Transition Accord are showing a commitment to transparency and to the safety of Bangladeshi workers. The Accord’s legally-binding framework is the only credible way to guarantee that life-threatening fire and structural hazards are remediated in a timely manner in ready-made garment and textile factories.”Valter Sanches, General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union

It’s now 2021, and these legally binding regulations are up for debate. The proposed agreement for the 2021 version of the Bangladeshi Accords extends the legally binding language to three main provisions, in a compilation of the two-year-long fight by the Workers Rights Consortium and other worker representatives to standardize legal brand accountability within outsourced supply chains.

The Accord inspections resulted in identifying 118,500 fire hazards within 1,687 factories covered by the Accord. More than 83% were immediately repaired.

In addition to maintaining the 8 pillars of the 2018 Bangladesh Accords, the additional three provisions of the 2021 Accords are as follows:

1) Binding and individually enforceable contracts with brands: Rather than leaving enforcement and accountability up to brand’s discretion, the Accord contends that any brand signatory is held legally responsible for ensuring human rights standards within their supply chain, and maintaining workplace safety. This is an actionable step against the previously voluntary basis by which brands independently held accountability over their supply chains.

2) Overseen by an independent secretariat: This independent secretariat serves to mitigate for any brand biases and ensure that the Bangladesh Accords maintain human rights protections for the garment workers it is intended to serve. Essentially, it acts as a mechanism of additional enforceable accountability.

Currently among the more popular outsourcing locations for fast fashion brands like Zara, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, etc., are: China, India, Malaysia, and Pakistan — all countries with garment manufacturing sectors that perpetuate hazardous workplace conditions due to a lack of legally binding and enforceable regulation.

3) Allowing for expansion to other countries: 2021 negotiations have built upon the growing occurrences of industrial disasters among garment manufacturing sites, especially in the years following the Rana Plaza collapse. In the wake of reform efforts into the Bangladeshi RMG (ready-made garment) industry, brands have been opting to expand outsourcing to countries with less developed workplace safety regulations to maintain their unethically low cost of production and retain their enormous profit margins. Currently among the more popular outsourcing locations for fast fashion brands like Zara, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, etc., are: China, India, Malaysia, and Pakistan — all countries with garment manufacturing sectors that perpetuate hazardous workplace conditions due to a lack of legally binding and enforceable regulation.

accord expansion

Looking Beyond Bangladesh

2015, Lahore, Pakistan — Owners of the Sundar Industrial Estate building began construction of a new floor despite being advised by contractors that the structural foundation of the building was beginning to see cracks, in the aftermath of the October 2015 7.5 magnitude earthquake. Following the earthquake, the building collapsed in November, trapping around 150 people inside the building. BBC reporting uncovered first hand reports by factory employees stating that “up to 50 shift workers may have been sleeping in a section of the building unreached by rescuers and that children as young as 12 were working there.” 45 garment workers were confirmed dead and over 150 were trapped inside the building and injured. The incident, which was a part of a larger set of industrial disasters in garment manufacturing sites all over Pakistan, called into question the ethical sourcing models of apparel brands with fast fashion companies like Inditex (Zara), JCPenney, Bennetton, and H&M all being major sourcers in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Liana Foxvog, formerly of the D.C.-based International Labor Rights Forum stated: “With the building collapse in Pakistan, this certainly calls attention to what can be done there, as far as labor reforms. Or is this incident going to go undiscussed by apparel companies?”

The [collapse], which was a part of a larger set of industrial disasters in garment manufacturing sites all over Pakistan, called into question the ethical sourcing models of apparel brands with fast fashion companies like Inditex (Zara), JCPenney, Bennetton, and H&M all being major sourcers in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Indeed it seems as though it was largely ignored by international apparel brands, as the same pattern of negligent workplace safety continued through the next five years.

In 2020, industrial disaster struck again, this time in an Indian factory.

2020, Ahmedabad, India — Nandan Denim Factory, the fourth-largest denim maker had failed several safety checks in the past, but was still operating in 2020. Garment workers interviewed by the Associated Press said that they were “paid about 35 cents an hour, working 14-hour shifts in dangerous conditions that often [left] them little time to eat meals or use the bathroom.” In February of 2020, the factory caught fire, and workers were trapped inside the building which only had one means of escape. With the only way out of the factory being a single ladder, 7 garment workers were confirmed dead. Zara, Ralph Lauren, Target and Ann Taylor all have ties to the Nandan Denim Factory. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, these brands denied ties, with Washington Post reporting: “Representatives for Target and Ann Taylor’s parent company, Ascena, said they never had relationship with Nandan and both expressed surprise that their companies were listed in the Nandan’s annual report.” Inditex, Zara’s parent company, claimed that its association with Nandan Denim was “inaccurate”.

In February of 2020, the factory caught fire, and workers were trapped inside the building which only had one means of escape. With the only way out of the factory being a single ladder, 7 garment workers were confirmed dead. Zara, Ralph Lauren, Target and Ann Taylor all have ties to the Nandan Denim Factory.

The Nandan Denim Factory disaster has been in a long list of factories that have been abandoned by brands when reparations are in order. Brands that Nandan Denim Factory sources for do not list Nandan Denim as a supplier. It’s part of a system of “shadow factories” — or operating subcontractors that brands refuse to claim as a part of their supply chain. Shadow factory sites have been consistently migrating to areas with overabundant labor and under-developed labor regulations.

Tangier, Morocco is a prime example.

2021, Tangier, Morocco — In February 2021, an illegal garment factory in Morrocco’s Tangier region was the site of flooding and torrential rains, causing 28 confirmed deaths. The illegal garment factory, part of the country’s “shadow factory” system, hid manufacturing sites that had been flouting ethical labor standards in residential areas. Child labor and prolonged work-hours have long been suspected conditions in these “shadow factories”, which was confirmed with the death of a 14-year-old garment worker at the Tangier site. Additionally, the industrial disaster resulted in 28 confirmed deaths, and only 10 survivors. Within the last 4 years, Morocco has become a growing sourcing destination for fast fashion brands. It has already become a major player in the European sourcing network, producing a majority of Inditex’s (Zara) inventory alongside Portugal and Turkey. Although the layers of subcontracted outsourcing and the illegality of the unregistered factory prevent definitive charges, there is considerable speculation of Zara clothing being produced at the Tangier factory — a region of Morocco already home to fast fashion production.

The industrial disaster [caused by flooding] resulted in 28 confirmed deaths, and only 10 survivors. Within the last 4 years, Morocco has become a growing sourcing destination for fast fashion brands.

This landscape of global garment manufacturing is one that has long operated on a systemic perpetuation by brands of a model of overproduction that encourages international labor abuse and negligence of workplace safety. Human rights transgressions within fast fashion supply chains have not been permanently fixed, largely because brands refuse to acknowledge their role in the abuse within their global supply chains.

BrANDS DISTANCING THEMSELVES FROM THE Accord in 2021

In 2021, H&M, Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, and American Eagle are among the brands that are distancing themselves from the movement to renew the Bangladesh Accord in favor of a competing program that maintains brands’ voluntary status and doesn’t infringe upon their ability to employ unethically cheap labor in Bangladesh. Fast fashion brands argue in favor of replacing the Bangladesh Accords with the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), a Bangladeshi regulatory body that was initially intended to serve as an implementation tool of the Accord. Without the Accord, the RSC has limited power to ensure garment worker safety.

Brand self-regulation seems to be rhetoric in line with lip service to tenets of ethicality paired with a reluctance to sacrifice unethical profits for human rights regulation.

Clean Clothes Campaign’s Ineke Zeldenrust found that “[brands] are proposing a type of [Accord] agreement that we know from before 2012, one that is no longer legally binding upon individual brands and has no independent secretariat to oversee brand compliance. Under the guise of setting up a lean structure, brands are in fact returning to self-monitoring, in direct contradiction of what upcoming [mHRDD] legislation is demanding,” — raising concerns over the actual protections of Bangladeshi garment workers and implying an end to enforceable brand accountability for workplace conditions in and beyond Bangladesh. Brand self-regulation seems to be rhetoric in line with lip service to tenets of ethicality paired with a reluctance to sacrifice unethical profits for human rights regulation.

Commitment to the Accord

Unlike the fast fashion brands that have pushed for an essentially greenwashed approach to workplace safety and labor rights, ASOS has been an exemplary model of brand accountability as an ally and signatory to the 2021 Bangladesh Accord. In April, ASOS pledged specifically to uphold the 2021 Accord, establishing the RMG Sustainability Council as contingent upon the Accord and emphasizing the importance of the Accord’s international expansion.

“This [Bangladesh Accords] is the only way to create a genuine level playing field, and the only way to keep the unions as members of the RSC. The GUFs [Global Union Federations] have made it clear that for both the global and local union members, representation in the RSC is conditional upon the successful negotiation of a new legally binding and enforceable international agreement that can be expanded to other countries if parties agree to do so, and we support this approach.Letter from ASOS

In supporting the Accord, ASOS, is demonstrating a commendable show of commitment towards enforceable change, not only in Bangladesh but around the world. Signing the Accords is the first step in addressing the issues of the global garment industry and provides a framework to implement workplace safety and legally binding brand accountability at an international level.

Extending the core tenets of the Bangladesh Accord to other countries with large garment manufacturing sectors is a matter of fundamental international human rights.

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