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Why the fashion industry can’t allow this life-saving legislation to expire

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The Bangladesh Accord was established to protect workers in the wake of 2013’s Rana Plaza factory collapse – but a number of brands are dragging their feet on renewing its vital regulations

The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed at least 1,134 people, was entirely preventable. The worst industrial disaster in the history of the fashion industry, it was the result of unsafe working conditions and a complete lack of scrutiny and accountability, as garment workers were forced to go back into a building where significant cracks had formed in the walls over the preceding days, threatened with wage losses.

In order to ensure that nothing of that scale could ever happen again, The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was established in the immediate aftermath. A legally binding agreement between brands and Bangladeshi unions, the scope of the accord covered steps towards a safer Ready-Made Garment (RMG) industry including safety inspections, fire safety training and mandatory, time-bound corrective action at any facilities found to be unsafe. The five-year agreement was signed in May 2013, with Primark, adidas, H&M, Zara and Uniqlo among the signatories, and it was extended for a further three years in 2018. Due to expire on May 31 of this year, a three-month extension was agreed until August 31, leaving just weeks until it expires again.

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Despite the previous extensions, brands are now dragging their feet on a further renewal. Out of over 200 signatories, only five have committed to extending and, importantly, expanding the accord: ASOS, G-Star, Tchibo, KiK, and Zeeman. This could have a devastating impact on the industry, so Remake, the non-profit behind the Pay Up campaign, are calling upon consumers to put pressure on brands including H&M, Zara, and Primark to demand they sign.

According to Remake, the initial inspection of Bangladesh’s factories in 2013 found “more than 87,000 safety issues, including more than 50 factories that were at immediate risk of collapsing”. Since then, more than 90 per cent of the original hazards which were identified have been eliminated, a result of 38,000 initial and follow-up inspections.

“The simple paradigm shift from voluntary promises to keep workers safe to true accountability from brands has been extraordinarily successful,” says Elizabeth Cline, author and director of advocacy and policy for Remake.

“Because of the accord, the work environment has improved very much. Before there would be sacks lying here and there in the aisles, there would be three machines instead of one. There was no way out. We would have to jump over one another to make our escape. Now the aisles are clear, the workspace is clean. We are working in a safer environment” – Parvin Akter

The positive impact of the accord so far has been felt keenly by workers in the sector. “Because of the accord, the work environment has improved very much,” says Parvin Akter, assistant secretary of the workers union at Ananta Apparel. “Before there would be sacks lying here and there in the aisles, there would be three machines instead of one. There was no way out. We would have to jump over one another to make our escape. Now the aisles are clear, the workspace is clean. Now we are working in a safer environment.”

It’s not just the conditions that have improved, but the ability of workers to speak up about issues and be heard. “The one thing I’ve experienced after the accord started working here is that our workers have a voice now,” says Kalpona Akter, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity. “If there’s a crack in the building they can say to the factory managers, ‘I will not come back until you fix it.’”

In place of the accord, brands are proposing an agreement with the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) which was set up in 2020 to take over the accord’s operations on the ground. Cline is keen to note that the issue isn’t with the RSC itself, as Remake supports more locally led safety procedures. However, as she explains, the RSC was never set up to displace or replace the accord itself: “It’s solely about extending that agreement, that piece of paper called the accord, that lays out brands’ commitment to factory worker safety and requires brands to sign on that dotted line. It’s that strong contract that we’re after.”

In avoiding signing another accord and looking to make an agreement with the RSC instead, brands are effectively proposing a voluntary initiative like those that were already in place when the Rana Plaza collapse happened, doing nothing to stop it. With the accord, brands are legally and financially on the hook, and that’s the key.

“The one thing I’ve experienced after the accord started working here is that our workers have a voice now. If there’s a crack in the building they can say to the factory managers, ‘I will not come back until you fix it’” – Kalpona Akter

For instance, in 2018, accord union signatories IndustriALL and UNI successfully reached a $2.3m settlement with a multinational apparel brand to “remedy life-threatening workplace hazards”. Without the legally binding framework of the accord, this could never have happened.

If brands are allowed to go back to self-monitoring, there will be no requirement for them to pay for safety improvements, or to make long-term commitments to their supplier factories. But if the accord is renewed, work can continue and expand to other garment-producing regions such as Pakistan and India, where workplace accidents and deaths are common.

Brands may argue they don’t need the accord any more, but conversations with workers on the ground makes the necessity black and white: “If we had had the accord before, we could have saved all those lives that were lost in the Rana Plaza collapse,” says Kalpona Akter.

Head here to learn how you can get involved and support the cause.