Bangladesh’s $28 billion garment industry is massive and accounts for 12 percent of the country’s GDP. The industry has provided paid employment to millions of women who flock to the capital of Dhaka as well as to other centers of production in Bangladesh. But, even as it provides the hope of improved living standards, the Bangladesh garment industry threatens the health, safety and even lives of the people it employs. As such, the Bangladesh Safety Accord aims to protect and ensure a better life for Bangladeshi garment workers.
Working conditions for Bangladeshis in the garment industry have been terrible for decades ever since the 1980s when foreign investment in Bangladeshi garment production helped to fuel the “fast fashion” revolution in cheap, disposable clothing. Since the 1990s, thousands have been killed and maimed in factory fires and building collapses in the country.
When the Rana Plaza Factory collapsed on April 24th, 2013 and killed 1,134 workers and injured 2,500 more, it came as no surprise to the people working inside these buildings. Indeed, they had tried to warn the factory foremen about the cracks spreading in the walls of the unsafe factories, but were told to go to work or they would lose their jobs.
The 2013 Bangladesh Safety Accord
The Rana Plaza disaster caused a stir in the international community and forced consumers to weigh the moral and ethical costs of buying from their favorite brands — such as H & M, Wal-Mart, Gap, Sears, Primark and numerous others. Less than a month after Rana Plaza, these companies began to sign onto a new way of monitoring global garment supply chains: The Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord. Some of these companies signed voluntarily, others under intense pressure from consumers and unions outraged by the negligence that led to the collapse.
Signatories of the Accord, a legally binding document, promised to ensure that:
- Independent building fire and safety inspectors would be hired by the workers and their unions instead of hired by employers
- Signatories would pay for remediation of any safety violations these inspectors found
- That if brands don’t abide by the rules of the Accord they may face lawsuits in their home countries
- That brands would support extensive worker training programs to teach workers their rights
The 2018 Bangladesh Safety Accord
The first Accord expired this year, and a second Accord is now seeking signatories. So far, brands such as H & M, Adidas and Primark have signed onto the accord.
Some retailers are noticeably missing from the new Accord. For example, Ikea, (which is included as part of the 2018 Accord because the textile industry is newly being held up to these standards) has expressed resistance to signing the accord, choosing instead to stick to IWAY, their company-wide code-of-conduct.
Abercrombie & Fitch and Sean Combs’ label Sean John are two other holdouts on the Accord.
These companies insist that corporate social responsibility codes will be sufficient to protect workers in their supply chains. But repeatedly, independent experts have found that only worker-driven corporate responsibility codes have brought real improvements in factory safety standards and other measures of good working conditions: limiting supervisor abuses of workers, beatings, sexual harassment etc.
What’s New in the 2018 Accord
According to the Bangladesh Safety Accord website, the new elements of the 2018 Accord are:
- Safety Committee and Safety training in all covered factories (no tiers)
- Training and Complaints Protocol to cover Freedom of Association rights (tbd) (In other words, workers must be allowed to organize and join unions.)
- Workers’ severance payments when factories close or relocate (a common practice in the globalized garment industry. Corporations simply relocate–often failing to pay their workers–instead of raising wages, lowering hours or making safety repairs.)
- It expands the scope of the Accord: for the first time including workers in home textiles; fabric and knit accessories; and there is talk of expanding further potentially to other industries (including consumer electronics)
- It proposes to institutionalize Accord functions in a national regulatory body.
The Good News
The results of the Bangladesh Safety Accord have been momentous. In her book, “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now” The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages,” Annelise Orleck, author and History Professor at Dartmouth College, writes that “Before the accord, an average of two hundred workers were dying every year in Bangladesh garment factories. In 2013, the death toll was much higher. In 2016-2017, there were zero deaths.”
Orleck writes that in the four years since the Accord was signed, “1,600 factories were inspected, 100,000 safety improvements were made, and there were 7,000 follow-ups to monitor improvements.”
While wage increases are not guaranteed in the Accord, the agreement is helping workers feel safer about speaking up in a country where the minimum wage is still just 32 cents an hour. It is hopeful that in the next few years, the Accord will continue to be successful, and that workers will no longer risk arrest for joining unions, negotiating better conditions and pay, and resisting sexual violence and sexual harassment in the workplace.
– Evann Orleck-Jetter