The Bangladesh Accord: Hope for a new standard in fashion
On April 24 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza building collapsed. Five garment factories spread out over eight floors came crashing down in an instant, killing and injuring thousands of garment workers.
Described as one of the worst industrial disasters of our generation, the Rana Plaza tragedy gave the world a disturbing insight into the way the fashion industry works. The magnitude of the devastation attracted worldwide media attention, but perhaps what's more shocking is the fact that working in dangerous conditions is part of the daily reality for millions of garment workers in Bangladesh and around the world.
The media spotlight on Rana Plaza kickstarted people into action. All over the world, consumers, trade unions and NGO's called on brands to step up and take responsibility for addressing the safety of garment workers. In response, the 'Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh' (aka the Bangladesh Accord) was created.
WHAT IS THE BANGLADESH ACCORD?
A legally binding agreement, established 6 weeks after the Rana Plaza collapse. Over 200 global fashion brands and retailers signed the Accord including many of the world’s largest brands such as H&M, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Top Shop and Uniqlo.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Bangladesh is one of the biggest exporters of clothing in the world, second only to China. Over 4 million garment workers are employed in more than 7,000 factories; these are the people who make the clothes that end up on our high streets. Prior to the Accord, brands relied on voluntary industry auditing schemes that were known to be ineffective, not least because there was no penalty for failing to meet the required standards. Factories could be declared unsafe, but there was no requirement for the brand or factory to make changes. The model set up by the Accord replaces these voluntary schemes with legally enforceable consequences for factories that fail safety inspections, and requires brands to provide financial support for factories to make the necessary improvements.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Brands that have signed the Accord are required to disclose information about the factories they use to produce their clothes. These factories are then subject to inspections which are carried out by a team of independent safety inspectors. Afterwards, a report containing recommendations for improved safety measures is shared with factory owners and the relevant signatory brands. After the funds have been negotiated, a collective action plan is devised to tackle the report recommendations and follow-up inspections take place to track progress. On top of this, a Safety Committee and Safety Training Programme has been set up by the Accord to empower workers with information on their right to refuse unsafe work, how to identify and address safety risks and how to voice complaints over safety concerns. Over 1.9 million workers in more than 800 factories have been reached through this programme.
IS IT EFFECTIVE?
Yes. For the first time, brands are legally accountable for working conditions of their garment workers in Bangladesh. There have been two cases where multi-national companies have been taken to court. For example, in January 2018 unions representing Bangladeshi garment workers reached a landmark settlement with a multinational clothing brand that was accused of being slow to resolve life-threatening hazards in their factories. The brand was ordered to pay $2million to fix issues at more than 150 garment factories in Bangladesh. The case was heard at The Hague and is proof that legally binding mechanisms can hold companies to account.
Over the last five years, building safety inspections have identified 41 incidences where there was a 'severe and imminent risk of structural failure'. As a result, factory operations were suspended and employees were evacuated. The Accord worked with brands and factories to help ensure workers' jobs remained secure and that they continued to receive a wage while improvements took place. This is a stark contrast to what happened at Rana Plaza, where workers were forced to re-enter a building they knew was unsafe under the threat that wages would be withheld.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
The Bangladesh Accord was set up to last for five years and is due to expire in May 2018. While significant progress has been made, there remains a lot of work to be done. Many factories still need to address safety concerns such as blocked fire exits, inadequate fire detection and prevention systems and structural issues. As we approach the five year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, it is particularly significant to note that 34% of factories covered by the Accord still don't have a management load plan, which is essential in guaranteeing that a multi-story factory is able to safely contain all its workers and machinery over multiple floors without the risk of collapse. In the absence of a suitable regulatory body to continue the work of the Accord, it's been decided that the agreement will be extended for another three years (Accord 2018).
Christy Hoffman, Deputy General Secretary of UNI Global Union, said:
"Over the past four years, unions and worker safety organisations have worked together with global brands within the Accord to find a solution to the seemingly intractable problem of dangerous factories in Bangladesh. Many said that change was not possible. We’ve proven them wrong. Our aim is to create a global economy which respects the lives and dignity of all workers, and the Accord is a big step along that path."
The fashion industry as a whole has operated without adequate regulation for decades. While not without its flaws, the Bangladesh Accord is part of a movement that is paving the way for a new standard. It has given garment workers hope that change is possible. Factories are becoming safer, and access to training and effective complaint mechanisms have empowered workers and given them a voice. The new 2018 Accord is set to maintain and build on the good work of its predecessor, but several of the original signatories are yet to add their names. Some brands point to the fact that the factories they use have addressed the safety issues raised by Accord inspections, but ensuring that buildings remain safe and protecting the rights of workers is a continuous process. We need a collaborative effort across the spectrum of stakeholders to create an industry where garment workers don't need to fear for their safety at work. As consumers, we can speak out to let our favourite brands know that we care about the people who make our clothes, and they should too. If brands are serious about committing to making change happen, they need to sign on the dotted line and join the 2018 Accord.
The lives of the people who make their clothes may depend on it.