Photo credit: UNFCC. - Photo: 2021

Battle To Ensure Safety in Bangladesh Garment Factories Continues as Safety Accord Is Extended

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) — The dark side of the global fashions industry was exposed in 2013 when over 1000 workers were killed in a factory fire and collapse. The global outrage resulted in the adoption of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (AFBS) in Bangladesh. The eight-year-old Accord was due to expire on May 31 and global unions that were part of this pact gave notice late last month of withdrawing from the body set up last year to look after its technicalities.

Just days before its expiry, manufacturers and unions agreed to extend the Accord for another three months, to allow all parties to negotiate a legally binding agreement that Unions have called for. The AFBS has made factories safer for over two million garment workers over the past eight years, but the fashion brands, in particular, have been reluctant to get into a legally binding safety accord.

The national RMG (Ready Made Garments) Sustainability Council (RSC) was set up in June last year to take over the technical responsibilities of AFBS, whose remit was to end on May 31.

Unions and industry organisations have been calling on the global apparel brands that outsource their production to the Bangladeshi factories, to sign a new agreement that will continue the work of the Accord and ensure that they will not return to self-monitoring that led to the famous Rana Plaza factory blaze in Dhakka in 2013.

In recent months, global apparel brands have insisted on a new framework for the future, which discards the key elements of the AFBS that led to its success of making garment factories in Bangladesh safe for its workers. The unions find this unacceptable and that is what led to their threat to withdraw from RSC. The major international unions represented in the RSC are UNI Global and IndustriAll.

According to UNI Apro (Asia-Pacific) Regional Secretary Rajendra Acharya, the Accord’s expiry due to the major brand’s inaction will be a major setback to the progress for workers’ health and safety in Bangladesh.

“The pandemic’s impact on retail sales is undeniable but this is a separate issue from the health and safety of workers which is a fundamental labour right. We have seen how emphasizing occupational safety and health have given workers better protection during the pandemic no matter where they work,” he told IDN.

“It will be disappointing for the hundreds and thousands of garment workers who have benefitted from improved safety standards. We fear that the factory owners will clamp down on the OSH committees that had empowered workers as soon as the Accord run out of date. It would be even worse if the brands lapse back to turning a blind eye once again,” added Acharya.

“The Accord (AFBS) and the independent secretariat empowered to report on brand performance, and more recently with the cooperation agreement with RSC, has successfully prevented loss of lives in the past eight-year,” IndustriAll Global Union general secretary Valter Sanchez said in a recent media interview.

The RSC was formed to carry on the legacy of the AFBS with factory inspections, remediation monitoring, safety training, and independent safety and health complaints mechanism that will be available to workers in RMG factories. The accord was established in response to pressure from European brands and buyers, who were in turn under pressure from consumer groups there, about safety standards in Bangladeshi factories following the Rana Plaza tragedy.

RSC was designed to be a national organization with equal representations from RMG manufacturers, global apparel companies and unions representing garment workers. More than 1600 RMD factories came under the purview of the RSC.

At the launch of the RSC in June 2020, Rubana Huq, President of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) told United News of Bangladesh (UNB), “through our collective efforts with brands and trade unions we will make sure that Bangladesh remains one of the safest countries, to source RMG products from”.

Roger Hubert, H&M and brand representative on the RSC Board of Directors reflected a similar optimistic tone in comments to UNB. “With the establishment of the RSC, brands can continue to honour their supply chain responsibilities that they have committed to, through the Accord (AFBS)signed with the trade unions. The RSC will provide the assurance that workplace safety will continue to be addressed throughout Bangladesh RMG supply chain” he said.

Bangladesh, a former aid-dependent nation, is poised to become a middle-income country, thanks mainly to its successful RMG industry, which supplies garments to mainly European markets. The RMG sector accounts for nearly 85 per cent of Bangladeshi exports, worth $33.1 billion in 2019. Today, many of Bangladesh’s RMG factories are seen as a model in transparency regarding factory safety and value-chain responsibilities, thanks to the AFBS and the formation of RSC.

However, the pandemic has stalled the sector’s progress at a crucial time.  When Covid-19 struck in 2020, global lockdowns triggered order reductions, cancellations, payment delays and renegotiation of terms. According to a report by McKinsey and Company in March 2021, the value of Bangladesh’s RMG exports fell by 17 percent in the first year of the pandemic, resulting in revenue losses of up to $5.6 billion.

Campaigners for a new legally binding safety accord for Bangladesh garments factories released a report in April this year, highlighting the safety hazard at factories producing garments for major fashion brands and retailers. The survey and report were sponsored by the Clean Clothes Campaign, the International Labour Rights Forum, the Macquila Solidarity Network and the Workers’ Rights Consortium.

“It is well established that the Accord (AFBS) has been the most successful safety program in the contemporary history of apparel supply chains, overseeing vast numbers of safety renovations and drastically reducing the risk of injury and death for millions of Bangladeshi garment workers.

What is less well understood is that, despite this extraordinary progress, deadly safety risks remain in a substantial number of factories producing for Accord signatory brands” the Report noted.

“The data show that each of these brands is sourcing from dozens of factories that have failed to install fire alarms, sprinkler systems, and/or adequate emergency exits.”

Drawn from the AFBS’s publicly available database, the report has provided statistics on lacking safety standards in many of the factories supplying to brands and retailers in Europe.

For example, 85 factories supplying to German retailer ALDI lacks a fire suppression system; 159 factories supplying H&M lack fire alarm and detection systems; and 79 factories supplying Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger lacks a fire suppression system. Under AFBS’s program, brands are responsible for ensuring that safety remediation is carried out at all current supplier factories, but it is not legally binding.

A report published by McKinsey & Company points out that a new preferential trade agreement signed between the European Union and Vietnam in August 2020, would see apparel exports from Vietnam outperforming Bangladesh.

With Unions in Vietnam under the control of the government, the global unions fear that without an industry safety accord that is internationally recognized and binding, Vietnam workers could be exploited by both manufacturers and brands.

“The Accord was held up as the next generation Global Framework Agreement where unions and multinationals collaborate in an even and active partnership to uphold labour standards. It was meant to prevent a race to the bottom in the global supply chain” argues Acharya.

“Whether the AFBS continues in its current form, it is still a useful model for unions to engage with multinationals to ensure their investment does not result in labour rights eroded.”

Acharya believes that the AFSB was successful because consumers in the global north grew more conscious of the impact their buying decisions have had. “Unions could and should continue their role to conscientize consumers while pressing for more accountability from multinationals,” he argues. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 June 2021]

Photo: This video shows why the work of the Accord is an example of how to make a change in the garment industry, using the hashtags #protectprogress and #RanaPlazaNeverAgain. Source: Clean Clothes Campaign.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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