When the Rana Plaza manufacturing complex collapsed in 2013, it sent shock waves through the fashion industry. The disaster, which claimed more than 1,000 lives, is considered the modern garment sector’s deadliest.
In its aftermath, brands faced intense international pressure to demonstrate they were taking action to improve conditions in Bangladesh’s factories. More than 200 committed to a legally binding agreement with trade unions to ensure worker safety.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was unprecedented in an industry that is largely governed by unenforced codes of conduct, lax regulation and self-monitoring. Over the last eight years, it has carried out over 38,000 inspections and more than 90 percent of the safety issues found on initial inspection have been reported as corrected. It is widely viewed as the most effective safety programme in the history of the modern garment industry.
Next week, it is set to expire. And with the pandemic once again turning global attention on working conditions in fashion’s supply chain, its legacy hangs in the balance.
Negotiations over a new agreement are fast moving towards crisis point, with unions threatening to withdraw their support for the Accord’s successor initiative unless the binding framework is extended.
“The Accord is really a landmark agreement,” said Ayesha Barenblat, founder and chief executive of ethical fashion campaign group Remake. “Unless you have something binding, it’s just cheap talk. It doesn’t matter how much dialogue you’re having, what we need is some skin in the game.”
The fate of the Accord has ramifications well beyond Bangladesh, itself one of the world’s largest garment exporters.
The agreement is widely viewed as a template for greater accountability within the industry, where decades of voluntary commitments have failed to address unsafe working conditions, chronically low wages and broader labour abuses. The system’s shortcomings have been particularly apparent over the course of the pandemic, when many brands cancelled orders and refused to pay for goods that had already been produced, jeopardising millions of livelihoods.
Workers rights groups fear that if the Accord lapses without any binding replacement, it could set back efforts elsewhere too.
If [brands] have commitments, they shouldn’t be afraid of a legally binding obligation.
“The Accord provides a proven set of principles, a proven model, a proven infrastructure,” said Laura Gutierrez, South Asia field director at the Worker Rights Consortium, a witness signatory to the Accord. The fact that “brands are willing to walk away from that doesn’t bode well.”
Advocates say the threat to the Accord’s principles is already damaging efforts to extend its framework globally. Nasir Mansoor, deputy general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation Pakistan said his organisation had been working with labour NGOs and unions to build a national consensus for an Accord-style programme in Pakistan, but the drawn-out negotiations in Bangladesh set a challenging precedent for getting these efforts of the ground.
“If [brands] have commitments, they shouldn’t be afraid of a legally binding obligation,” said Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity. But “they want to go back to the [time] where they made a lot of empty promises.”
The Accord was always meant to be temporary.
Though it’s proved highly effective, it’s also faced opposition from Bangladesh’s government and politically powerful factory owners. Manufacturers were not included in the agreement and have chafed at the cost of safety remediation efforts, which they have largely shouldered themselves.
Last year, brands, manufacturers and unions agreed to transfer the Accord’s responsibilities to a new organisation, the Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), with representatives from all three parties on its board. The new organisation is fully equipped to take on and expand the Accord’s work and is more representative of the industry, said Miran Ali, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and one of six industry representatives on the RSC’s board.
We don’t want to go back to 2013; we don’t want… another Rana Plaza.
Unions had hoped to separately negotiate a new binding agreement to monitor brands and hold them individually accountable to their commitments with the RSC, before the Accord expired. But talks stalled during the pandemic, leaving the unions to threaten to withdraw support from the initiative unless a new agreement is reached.
“We can’t be in the RSC without having a way to ensure that brands actually live up to the commitments that they’ve made,” said Christina Hajagos-Clausen, textile and garment director at IndustriALL Global Union and a member of the Accord’s steering committee. “That’s a red line for us, because we know that it hasn’t worked in the past, [and] I don’t see how it could work in the future.”
The brands involved in the discussions said they were confident of reaching an agreement in a joint statement issued earlier this month. The group is “committed to secure fire, building and electrical safety in the long term” in Bangladesh, the statement said. Asos and German retailer Tchibo have previously said they would back a new binding agreement. Neither provided comment for this story.
Labour groups warn that if the landmark agreement is allowed to lapse it will signal a critical step back in the fight to make brands accountable for their public commitments, and progress already made could easily slip away.
“We don’t want to go back to 2013; we don’t want … another Rana Plaza,” said Nazma Akter, executive director of labour rights NGO Awaj Foundation. Without a binding agreement “there is no responsibility, there is no accountability; there will be more incidents.”
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