International agreement in limbo . . .
Workers’ rights in Bangladesh face an uncertain future, with an important agreement on factory safety hanging in the balance. The Accord on Fire and Building Safety was signed between 200 European retailers who source garments from Bangladesh and Bangladeshi unions in the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster – a factory collapse that killed 1,134 people and left many more permanently injured. The tragedy exposed serious lapses in factory safety and Western retailers’ complicity, in part due to their failures to ensure the use of ethical supply chains. The Accord was to expire on May 31, but the parties agreed to a three-month extension to buy time to reconcile their differences.
Fearing a backslide . . .
A main sticking point in the negotiations is the non-binding nature of the Accord’s potential replacement, the RMG (ready-made garments) Sustainability Council. One of the Accord’s strengths was that it created an independent body to inspect 38,000 factories and obligated members to address more than 120,000 fire, electrical, and other building hazards. While the Accord by no means dealt with all human and labour rights issues, it was heralded as a “trailblazer for global worker safety and auditing” in an industry normally rife with violations. The unions that signed on to the Accord are concerned that much of the progress could be reversed once compliance by factory owners and retailers becomes non-binding.
Much at stake . . .
The post-Accord agreement will have a widespread and long-term impact. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh’s C$41-billion-per-year garment-export industry was vital to its economy and provided a possible pathway out of poverty for its employed young women. The Accord’s supporters also hoped it could be a model for other countries and industries whose workers are susceptible to exploitation. Several Canadian and American retailers implicated in the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster formed the separate Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which concluded in 2018. However, the Alliance was seen as a weaker agreement than the Accord because it lacked a legally binding provision for enforcing compliance.
- The Guardian: Bangladesh clothing factory safety deal in danger, warn unions
- The New York Times: After factory disaster, Bangladesh made big safety strides. Are the bad days coming back?
- The New York Times: Fears for Bangladesh garment workers as safety agreement nears end