Towards a New Model of Responsibility
Almost five years have passed since the Rana Plaza tragedy. The building on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed on April 24th, 2013, killing 1134 and injuring 2500 garment factory workers who were making clothes for renowned western fast fashion brands. Amongst a number of fires and garment factory collapses in the country (the fire in the Tazreen factory in November 2012 was particularly tragic), the Rana Plaza case is considered the deadliest accident in the garment industry and it drew worldwide attention to the problem of building safety and working conditions in the Bangladeshi apparel sector.
In the West, the collapse also gave a new impetus to the debate on whether, and to what extent, brands should take responsibility for exploitative labour conditions in their suppliers' factories. Within a month following the collapse, a group of the world's biggest garment firms and retailers, including H&M, Tesco, Inditex (who own the brand Zara) and PVH (comprising Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) signed an agreement with two global union federations, UNI and IndustriALL.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, signed on May 15th, 2013, has been welcomed as a turning point in the enforcement of global labour standards and human rights. A five year legally binding agreement came into being from a multilateral negotiation, and as such, the Accord marked a departure from the 'Corporate Social Responsibility' model, which had been the dominant framework since the 1990's scandals revealing widespread sweatshop labour in fashion supply chains. The CSR model is based on voluntary codes of conduct, rather than legally enforceable and thus unilaterally adopted agreements. As such, companies can withdraw from these codes at any time, meaning that codes of conduct can be seen more as mere declarations of intent than commitments to real accountability. As a matter of fact, these voluntary codes proved weak on a number of occasions and failed to improve labour conditions along garment supply chains.
By contrast, the Accord has imposed specific obligations on brands and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh, including financial obligations. In doing so, the Accord operates under the assumption that the responsibility of ensuring safe working conditions for garment workers lies with both high street fashion brands and their suppliers. In particular, the key features of the Accord are the Steering Committee and the Health and Safety Committees. The Steering Committee, which is elected with equal representation by signatory companies and trade unions coordinates an independent safety inspection and training program of the signatories' supplier factories, which consists of regular inspections, publicly disclosed reports and 'corrective action plans'. Signatory brands also commit to ensuring sufficient funds for the safety upgrades in their suppliers' factories. The Health and Safety Committees, comprise of at least 50% workers representatives, to be established in all factories. The workers' representatives identify safety risks and communicate with management and workers about safety issues. Workers are empowered by the Accord, insofar as they receive fire and safety training, can access complaint mechanisms and have the right to refuse to work if they have 'reasonable justification' to believe the building is unsafe. If a factory fails to participate fully in the inspection and remediation processes or the training activities, a warning process is activated by the supplied signatory company, which can ultimately lead to the termination of the business relation. Importantly, a dispute resolution mechanism is also present, which relies on the Steering Committee's arbitration and is enforceable in a court of law of the domicile of the signatory against whom enforcement is sought.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is expiring: what has been achieved and what is at stake?
Five years since coming into formation, the Accord nears the end of its lifespan. Some important improvements in the industry's safety standards have been made. However, the process is obviously ongoing and still far from completion. According to the reports disclosed by the Steering Committee, out of approximately 1600 factories covered by the Accord (which supply more than 200 signatory brands), 767 have reached 90% of the remediation process stemming from the initial inspections, and 142 have completed it. Safety Committees at factory level have run training programmes reaching over 1.4 million workers. Furthermore, 197 safety and health complaints have been resolved and 93 suppliers have terminated their business relationships with a signatory company.
The Accord is obviously no panacea for the sweatshop problem in Bangladesh. After all, garment supply chains, as in many other sectors, are complex and opaque. They consist of an intricate network of contractors, subcontractors, casual and informal labour. It is extremely difficult to track all of them, and, probably, hardly feasible for brands to fund safety upgrades in factories which supply them only occasionally. Sometimes, brands cannot even be aware of the actors above presence and role in the supply chain. For this reason, the Accord imposes different obligations on brands towards suppliers, according to the volume of the garments supplied, and the stability of the business relation.
With its scope limited to Fire and Building Safety, the Accord has nonetheless brought about undeniable and measurable progress in the working conditions of many Bangladeshi garment workers. Importantly, it has put into action the idea of fashion brands' accountability in supply chains, whose responsibility can be extended beyond the scope of fire and building safety, to other aspects of working conditions, such as living wages and freedom of association.
The new Accord is ready and open to signatories: why it is crucial not to let down our guard on safety?
The 'spillover effects' are already visible in the '2018 Transition Accord', which will come into force on June 1st, 2018, after the end of the current one. The new elements include: Training and a Complaints Protocol (to be developed by the Steering Committee) aimed to protect the workers' rights to Freedom of Association in relation to the scope of safe working conditions. There will also be the possibility to voluntarily extend the program to other related industries, like home textiles, fabric and knit accessories.
The renewed Accord will run for three years, after which its functions will be handed over to a Bangladeshi regulatory body. It is currently open to signatories; so far, 149 have already signed, while a number of others are still missing. The reason why apparel brands and we, as consumers, have to keep our attention high and support the 2018 Transition Accord is that the process of inspection, training and 'corrective action plans' in the covered factories is ongoing, and needs continuous and joint effort. If a signatory brand withdraws its support from the new Accord, the program will automatically stop for all its suppliers, thus jeopardising the safety improvement plan for those factories.
The Rana Plaza tragedy must be a constant, tragic reminder of the risks deriving from poor and unsafe working conditions along supply chains. The debate on responsibilities and possible solutions is still heated; ultimately, the purpose of the 2018 Accord is to ensure continuity to the process until a Bangladeshi authority will be ready to take responsibility for the safety of garment factories. In the meantime, the Accord and the new 2018 version are offering a model which distributes obligations more fairly across the garment value chain and has made essential safety upgrades and renovations in hundreds of factories. At this time, in particular, the program needs support and attention from the whole civil society, including consumers, the last, but not less powerful, node of the garment value chain.
By: Chiara Marandino
Linkedin: Chiara Marandino