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Bangladeshi textile workers fear for their safety following the expiration of a successful accord brought in after the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster. Global unions say firms could revert to an old model of self-monitoring.
The expiry of an important agreement concerning Bangladesh's garment industry is raising fresh safety questions
The expiration of the Bangladesh Accord, a legally binding agreement between global brands, retailers and unions, on May 31 and no long-term commitment from brands has cast fresh fears for the future safety of Bangladeshi garment factory workers.
The Bangladesh Accord received 214 signatures in 2018, 200 of them being brands. A three-month extension of the accord has been agreed upon with 56 brands, including H&M, Zara owner Inditex, Adidas, Puma, Uniqlo, Otto Group, Bestseller, KIK and Tchibo.
But fears remain for the long-term protection of Bangladeshi workers. UNI Global Union and IndustriALL Global Union, the labor signatories of the Bangladesh Accord, say multinational brands want to revert to self-monitoring their own supply chains, potentially harming transparency and accountability, and with potentially dire consequences for the lives of millions of garment workers.
Christina Hajagos-Clausen, director of Textile and Garment at IndustriALL union, says that a move towards a model whereby a "brands association” group, created by brands, would in effect act as arbiter for inspections, rather than the independent body currently in charge of keeping brands in line.
"Individual brands have to be held accountable, it can't be an association that's held accountable," she told DW, adding that self-monitoring could potentially lead to mismanaged factories as seen both in the past and present. On the same day as the Bangladesh Accord expired, a major fire broke out at a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan.
The Bangladesh Accord was introduced following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, killing at least 1,100 people and remembered as the deadliest industrial disaster in modern history. It provided mechanisms whereby factory workers could lodge complaints, be trained in spotting health and safety violations and sit on advisory boards. Forty-eight German companies signed the renegotiated accord in 2018, the most from one country.
The Bangladesh Accord's success relies on a governance structure where trade unions have equal power with brands, supported by an independent body with transparency obligations.
"We've been able to work with the brands despite some very rocky moments over the years. We don't always agree on everything — far from it. But we've been working to find consensus on many of the hard issues that we face when it comes to inspecting thousands of factories," said Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union's general secretary.
Bangladeshi factory workers say the accord has improved their lives and fear its disappearance despite a short extension from some brands.
"I firmly believe that if the accord stays, then we will not have to die in fire accidents and building collapses," said Ronjona Aktar Hashi at the Alliance Knit Composite factory on the outskirts of Dhaka.
Mohammad Muzaffar in a nearby factory lost a leg in a factory collapse. He fears "garment workers' situation will worsen" if the accord doesn't continue in the same vein as it has done since 2013.
"We have big fire doors installed in four factory floors. We have fire extinguishers in every floor. These were not in place before," Muzaffar said.
Some believe the COVID pandemic may have enabled some firms to take a step back when nobody's watching
In January 2020, just months before COVID-19 hit Europe, a European Commission report praised the Bangladesh Accord as the gold standard on due diligence in the supply chain. The EU is currently preparing legislation that will ensure businesses are legally responsible for their supply chains and abide by human rights conventions.
Danish Member of Europen Parliament Karen Melchior said European lawmakers "need to make sure that human rights for workers are protected and we need to do that through mandatory requirements," such as only signing trade agreements that abide by human rights laws under the International Labour Organization.
"Individual companies have an obligation to make sure that their production is following minimum standards, no matter if the government and the authorities in that country are not keeping the factories and the producers responsible for actually following national law," she told DW.
Christie Miedema, a labor rights activist with the Clean Clothes Campaign, says the pandemic may have enabled some companies to "take a step back when nobody's watching," despite the accord working for brands with savvy, socially conscious consumers as well as workers.
Otto Group said in a statement that it is "committed to making the RSC the industry standard to ensure workers' safety across the Bangladesh garment sector now and in the future." The RSC is a permanent safety monitoring body for the industry in Bangladesh.
"We are committed to securing the independence, resources and financing of this organization to secure workplace safety for all workers in Bangladesh now and into the future," says Aldi Nord, another signatory of the accord, in a statement.