6 Years After Rana Plaza Collapse, an Accord to Improve Bangladesh’s Worker Safety Is in Jeopardy

Michelle Chen March 19, 2019

Workers at a garment factory work at MB Knit garment factory in Narayanganj, near Dhaka. (Photo by Mushfiqul Alam/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Today’s cloth­ing retail indus­try is dri­ven by fast fash­ion” — a busi­ness mod­el of break-neck pro­duc­tion, fren­zied trend cycles and rav­en­ous con­sump­tion. But the fac­to­ries pro­duc­ing the clothes are mired in old-fash­ioned indus­tri­al drudgery, and clean­ing up dirty work­ing con­di­tions has been a slog. For sev­er­al years, how­ev­er, an inno­v­a­tive sys­tem for reform­ing one of the world’s bas­tions of sweat­shop labor has slow­ly plod­ded ahead, audit­ing and reme­di­at­ing some of the world’s most dan­ger­ous fac­to­ries. Yet, after about half a decade of a steady evo­lu­tion in work­place safe­ty and pro­tec­tions for work­ers, activists say the Bangladesh Accord is now at risk of unrav­el­ing under polit­i­cal pressure.

To date, the Accord’s enforce­ment sys­tem, run by a transna­tion­al team of labor audi­tors, union and work­er advo­cates, has direct­ed the inspec­tion of about 2,000 fac­to­ries and iden­ti­fied tens of thou­sands of haz­ards, from faulty wiring to founder­ing build­ing struc­tures. The enforce­ment sys­tem has also led safe­ty train­ings and devel­oped work­er-led watch­dog pro­grams. The Accord has received coop­er­a­tion and fund­ing from multi­na­tion­al fash­ion brands, over­sight from the Inter­na­tion­al Labour Orga­ni­za­tion, and grass­roots labor sup­port from the glob­al fed­er­a­tion Indus­tri­ALL, SEIU and AFL-CIO, as well as Bangladesh-based unions. The pact has led to major invest­ments in inspect­ing and ren­o­vat­ing fac­to­ries accord­ing to legal­ly bind­ing standards.

Repairs are com­plet­ed or under­way at more than 1,100 fac­to­ries, with tens of thou­sands of fire-relat­ed and elec­tri­cal safe­ty repairs already com­plet­ed. The projects range from reme­di­at­ing fire exits and detec­tion sys­tems to fix­ing wiring, to pro­vid­ing Accord-approved engi­neer­ing assess­ments. Accord­ing to the safe­ty staff’s fol­low-up inspec­tions, as of late Jan­u­ary, rough­ly 67 to 89 per­cent of struc­tur­al, elec­tri­cal and fire-relat­ed safe­ty reme­di­a­tions had either been ver­i­fied or were pend­ing ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Out­side fund­ing from sig­na­to­ry brands pro­vides fur­ther guar­an­tees that bring­ing the indus­try up to stan­dard can be both finan­cial­ly and social­ly sus­tain­able — a poten­tial mod­el for oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ing hubs in the Glob­al South.

For the image-con­scious sig­na­to­ry brands like H&M, the pro­gram pro­vides a major pub­lic-rela­tions boost. But the Accord began as a day of reck­on­ing — born in the wake of the 2013 col­lapse of Rana Plaza, Bangladesh’s worst mod­ern-day indus­tri­al dis­as­ter. Fol­low­ing the pre­ventable deaths of more than 1,100 work­ers, the indus­try chan­neled its pub­lic shame into a legal­ly bind­ing glob­al com­pact to make work safer for work­ers in Bangladesh fac­to­ries. Both inter­na­tion­al human rights groups and local unions and work­er advo­cates have been involved with the devel­op­ment and en­­forcement process, as well as gen­er­al­ly ensur­ing that the Accord pro­vides a plat­form for work­ers’ self-advo­ca­cy on occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty issues.

Polit­i­cal standoff

Today, how­ev­er, the Accord is dan­gling by a thread in a polit­i­cal stand­off with Bangladesh offi­cials and indus­try, poten­tial­ly under­cut­ting years of progress on improv­ing work­place protections.

The Bangladesh gov­ern­ment ordered the Accord, which was recent­ly renewed with many new­ly nego­ti­at­ed enhance­ments, to cease oper­at­ing through its Dha­ka office at the end of last Novem­ber, while severe­ly restrict­ing the Accord’s staff from con­duct­ing basic reg­u­la­to­ry func­tions, includ­ing cit­ing safe­ty vio­la­tions and sanc­tion­ing employ­ers who retal­i­ate against whistle­blow­ers who report haz­ardous con­di­tions. The pro­gram is cur­rent­ly ensnared in a legal impasse with the gov­ern­ment and own­ers under a restrain­ing order from the High Court, pend­ing fur­ther court proceedings.

Although the tran­si­tion plan pro­vides for the trans­fer of duties to the Bangladesh Reme­di­a­tion Coor­di­na­tion Cell of the Depart­ment of Inspec­tions for Fac­to­ries and Estab­lish­ments (RCC-DIFE), the Accord’s inter­na­tion­al staff sees the new author­i­ty as a vehi­cle for cor­po­rate cap­ture of the reg­u­la­to­ry appa­ra­tus. The Accord Steer­ing Com­mit­tee stat­ed in mid-Feb­ru­ary that the RCC-DIFE remains at its ear­li­est stages of devel­op­ment and is not yet pre­pared to ade­quate­ly reg­u­late build­ing and occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty and health at its cur­rent base of [ready-made gar­ment] factories.”

Liana Foxvog of the U.S.-based advo­ca­cy group Inter­na­tion­al Labor Rights Forum, told In These Times via email, The high­ly obstruc­tive con­straints that the gov­ern­ment is attempt­ing to impose would strip the glob­al­ly-respect­ed safe­ty ini­tia­tive of its abil­i­ty to oper­ate inde­pen­dent­ly of gov­ern­ment and employ­er con­trol.” In oth­er words, the main pur­pose of absorb­ing the accord into a busi­ness-friend­ly reg­u­la­to­ry régime is to unrav­el the Accord’s stan­dards and autonomy.

The stakes of the impasse go beyond the reg­u­la­tions of the Accord itself. The gar­ment work­force in Bangladesh may have seen mean­ing­ful improve­ments in hun­dreds of fac­to­ries, but the Accord cov­ers just a frac­tion of the sev­er­al thou­sand sup­pli­er fac­to­ries in Bangladesh, includ­ing many that feed into the mas­sive stream of appar­el exports that flood West­ern retail mar­kets. Many local fac­to­ries have par­tic­i­pat­ed in a con­tro­ver­sial cor­po­rate-friend­ly alter­na­tive to the Accord known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Work­er Safe­ty, pushed by Gap and oth­er brands, which fol­lowed a lax­er vol­un­tary” eth­i­cal sourc­ing mod­el and phased out at the end of 2018.

But the gains under the Accord have been sig­nif­i­cant and paved the way for bold­er advance­ments in both work­place safe­ty and work­ers’ rights.

In a joint state­ment sup­port­ing the con­tin­u­a­tion of the Accord last Octo­ber, the unions involved with the Accord stressed that the progress of the pro­gram had been unprece­dent­ed, but had fur­ther to go.

The Accord inspec­tion pro­grams are ongo­ing and have not yet com­plet­ed their pur­pose. … It is impor­tant both for the safe­ty of work­ers and the ben­e­fit of the indus­try that the Accord is allowed to con­tin­ue to func­tion to ensure the fac­to­ries are safe to work in,” said Amin Amir­ul Haque, a leader of one of the union sig­na­to­ries of the Accord, the Nation­al Gar­ment Work­ers Fed­er­a­tion in the coali­tion’s state­ment. Oth­er­wise con­sumers and buy­ers in the inter­na­tion­al mar­ket will again lose con­fi­dence in the gar­ments pro­duced in Bangladesh.”

For Bangladeshi fac­to­ry own­ers, how­ev­er, the short-term inter­est in max­i­miz­ing prof­it seems to out­weigh the social div­i­dend of safe­guard­ing work­ers’ lives. Gar­rett Brown, an indus­tri­al hygien­ist who has assist­ed with the Accord’s local safe­ty-train­ing pro­grams, tells In These Times that advo­cates are main­ly con­cerned that the takeover by the Bangladesh gov­ern­ment will undo past progress for the same rea­sons that were prob­lems before Rana Plaza, which is that the gov­ern­ment is heav­i­ly influ­enced by the gar­ment indus­try and does­n’t want to do any­thing that would reduce exports.” There is a ten­sion between local sup­pli­ers, who are sub­ject­ed to the rig­ors of the reg­u­la­to­ry process and respon­si­ble for mak­ing required retro­fits, and the brands that use the Accord to hold sup­pli­ers account­able — reflect­ing the grow­ing sen­si­tiv­i­ty of West­ern brands over the dis­turb­ing pat­tern of labor abus­es overseas.

At the same time, Brown stress­es that the fash­ion brands are keen on uphold­ing the Accord because they see a busi­ness case for invest­ing in safe­ty: For image-con­scious com­pa­nies, the Accord has become, the goose that laid the gold­en egg,” says Brown. They don’t have to wor­ry about being sub­ject to cam­paigns by labor rights orga­ni­za­tions and con­cerned consumers.”

Yet, local sup­pli­ers stand to lose as well: The Accord’s Chief Safe­ty Inspec­tor has warned that, were the Accord blocked from con­tin­u­ing its fac­to­ry audits, hun­dreds of under-per­form­ing facil­i­ties could no longer be mon­i­tored, and would sub­se­quent­ly be barred from doing busi­ness with sig­na­to­ry brands. Dozens of fac­to­ries have already been ter­mi­nat­ed from the sys­tem due to fail­ure to meet safe­ty stan­dards. In the future, with­out inde­pen­dent staff on the ground, labor activists fear that the Accord author­i­ties will lack both the capac­i­ty and the will to inter­vene as force­ful­ly in the future.

An abrupt end to the Accord could sti­fle Bangladesh’s already embat­tled labor move­ment. Despite gen­er­al hos­til­i­ty toward labor activism by boss­es and the gov­ern­ment, with fre­quent crack­downs on strikes and union orga­niz­ing efforts, the Accord encour­aged the for­ma­tion of autono­­mous work­er safe­ty com­mit­tees, which have pro­vid­ed a rare source of legal lever­age on major issues of work­er safety.

Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Cen­ter for Work­ers’ Sol­i­dar­i­ty, which has long cam­paigned for reforms in the glob­al sup­ply chain, stat­ed, We need the Accord to con­tin­ue to work. It has made enor­mous change and made our work­ers’ lives safer. Now work­ers have right to say NO to dan­ger­ous work. If the Accord would have to leave the coun­try it would mean putting work­ers lives in dan­ger again and we should not take this risk.”

The threat of the Accord’s Dha­ka office being forced to close coin­cides with a crack­down on work­er protests across the gar­ment indus­try. Fol­low­ing a surge of strikes and protests in Decem­ber 2018 and Jan­u­ary 2019, about 11,000 work­ers lost their jobs, accord­ing to the glob­al labor fed­er­a­tion Indus­tri­ALL. The bru­tal sup­pres­sion under­scored that the mean­ing of safe­ty” at work is about much more than just fire exits. Some fac­to­ries affect­ed by the crack­down were pro­duc­ing for brands that are also sig­na­to­ries to the Accord — sig­ni­fy­ing how the strug­gle for safe work­places and just jobs are inter­wo­ven at the bot­tom of the glob­al sup­ply chain. Foxvog not­ed that sol­i­dar­i­ty protests in Europe and the Unit­ed States made demands on the brands: that they press their sup­pli­ers to drop all charges, rehire all dis­missed work­ers with back wages, and denounce this crack­down on work­ers’ rights,” in addi­tion to pro­tect­ing the Accord.

Chris­tine Miede­ma of the Nether­lands-based Clean Clothes Cam­paign, says via email from Ams­ter­dam that, Brands will remain respon­si­ble for safe­ty in their sup­ply chains, what­ev­er the out­come of the court pro­ceed­ings in Bangladesh … The Accord is a bind­ing con­tract for brands, which they can­not leave before hav­ing ful­filled all their obligations.”

Since the Accord was spawned by a move­ment, not a state decree, the pow­er of the agree­ment will endure through the social con­tract that it embod­ies for the fash­ion indus­try: the social imper­a­tive to break the link between cheap prices in the shop win­dow, and the cost of work­ers’ lives on the shop floor.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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