The International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry is reportedly all set to get going in Bangladesh for two more years.
“This is a legally binding agreement between companies and trade unions to make readymade garment (RMG) and textile factories safe,” reads a statement reportedly signed by the deal’s Deputy Director Joris Oldenziel and representatives for UNI Global Union and IndustriALL Global Union, adding, “The renewed agreement advances the fundamental elements that made the Accord successful.”
It may be mentioned here that the original agreement, known as the Bangladesh Accord, was due to expire on 31 August and the new version came into force on 1st September and is named the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry even as some 200 retailers signed up to the Accord in 2013, including retail giants H&M, Inditex, Fast Retailing’s Uniqlo, Hugo Boss and adidas and a list of those have also signed up to the extension.
The International Accord was announced on 25 August and, comes after months of negotiations between global unions UNI and IndustriALL and retailers even as it includes the legally-binding commitments, respect for freedom of association and independent administration and monitoring, while also expanding the remit to include other countries and an option to advance its scope to include human rights due diligence.
The five-year Accord, struck in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 garment workers, instituted an independent body that held thousands of inspections and banned unsafe factories from supplying its signatory buyers even as labour activists claimed it helped to make some 1,600 factories safer for 2 million workers while under a transition deal agreed in 2018 after the original Accord expired, a newly-formed body, the Readymade Garments Sustainability Council (RSC), which brings together unions, brands, and factory owners, took over the work of running factory inspections in Bangladesh.
Some sign the deal; others sitting on the fence still…
According to reports in the Western media, at the time of filing of this feature, British fashion retailers including Asos, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Matalan have become some of the first signatories for the new International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which came into force on 1st September.
Other big retailers to sign up to the 26-month legally-binding agreement, which replaces the now-expired Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, include Zara’s parent Inditex, H&M, Bestseller, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing even as by signing the agreement with UNI Global Union and IndustriALL Global Union, the retailers have committed to the health and safety work already undertaken in Bangladesh and to the expansion of country-specific health and safety programmes based on the principles of the 2013 and 2018 Accord agreements.
UNI General Secretary Christy Hoffman, said: “Today marks a significant step forward for workers in the global garment industry. In signing the International Accord, brands and retailers shore up their commitment to factory safety in Bangladesh and also agree to establishing badly-needed enforceable and transparent health and safety programmes in at least one other garment producing country,” adding, “We are delighted that so many global retailers and brands have signed up to the International Accord and in doing so, are taking responsibility for garment worker safety in their supply chains. We look forward to welcoming more signatories to the International Accord as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, brands including Primark, Next and JD Sports were reportedly yet to sign up even as around 80 companies including Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Asos, H&M, Zara’s owner Inditex and New Look have backed the legally binding deal, which replaces one signed by more than 200 international fashion companies after the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in 2013.
Primark, which paid out millions of pounds in compensation to victims of Rana Plaza, where one of its suppliers was based, reportedly said it intended to sign the same and was reviewing the legal documents, as per media reports.
“We’re pleased that the negotiations for the new Accord have now concluded,” reportedly added Primark even as some brands reportedly held back because of union demands to extend the agreement to other countries beyond Bangladesh.
Discontent in the industry?
Even as the International Accord for Health and Safety in Textile and Garment Industry has been rolled out, one can very well feel a sense of resentment and discontent amongst the garment makers even as BGMEA President Faruque Hassan has reportedly expressed surprise that the ‘International Accord’ on workplace environment and worker safety has been extended and that too, without any discussion with owners in the garment sector.
“I don’t know what they’re doing in other countries, but this Accord will not hold in Bangladesh,” reportedly underlined the BGMEA chair, adding, “Here owners and workers, buyers and brand representatives formed the tripartite RMG Sustainability Councils, or RSC, to conduct reforms.”
As is perhaps apparent, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association is not in favour of the implementation of International Accord in Bangladesh, even as it reportedly maintained that apart from the RMG Sustainability Council, there is no licensed entity to oversee safety issues for the country’s readymade garment sector.
The former Stitching Bangladesh Accord Foundation and the proposed International Accord for Health and Safety in Textile and Garment Industry Foundation are separate entities to the RSC and will not have any function in Bangladesh, directly or indirectly, unless expressly permitted by the Government of Bangladesh, reportedly maintained the BGMEA President in a statement even as the garment makers’ body came up with the reaction following the official announcement of International Accord by the global trade unions and international apparel retailers.
“The claim that the International Accord agreement is being implemented in Bangladesh by the independent national tri-partite RMG Sustainability Council is misleading,” Faruque Hassan reportedly underlined even as he maintained the press release by the Accord Foundation declaring formation of the International Accord might have been confusing for many and might give the impression of a poor partnership.
The press release might be seen to be undermining an independent organisation; one that was not controlled or subservient to the parties of the above captioned agreement, claimed Faruque even as he went on to add that clauses and sub-clauses of any agreement signed outside Bangladesh, which are directly contradictory to the dictates of the laws of Bangladesh must stand as null and void and have no scope of being implemented and the RSC would not be functioning beyond its mandated remit.
The BGMEA President said that the RSC was formed as an independent non-profit company, licensed by the Government to take over the Bangladesh operations of the Accord and as such, the Accord functions in Bangladesh ceased to exist as of 31 May, 2020 even as the RSC took over the monitoring regime as of 1 June, 2020, bringing the Bangladesh RMG safety monitoring regimes under one umbrella, he added while underlining that the RSC consists of all stakeholders having equal representation and is an independent platform, where the protocols of the former Accord 2013 had been adopted; where they proved to be competent and functional.
The BGMEA President further reportedly quipped that the industry has zero tolerance for backsliding on matters related to safety, even while the rate of progress of certification may not be as per expectation, but the RSC is working to overcome these issues.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association or BKMEA has also opposed the new pact between major global retailers, workers and owners that subjects retailers to legal action if their factories fail to meet labour safety standards.
“The Accord ended in Bangladesh following a court order. It cannot return with another name or initiative,” said BKMEA Vice-President Mohammad Hatem, adding, “They have done many things for us. Their initiative has sufficiently ensured safety at factories in Bangladesh. We think no initiative in the name of Accord is necessary now… Bangladesh’s quite capable of exporting garments now. We also have the capacity to block their initiative,” even as he rued the fact that apparel exporters of Bangladesh were not consulted on the new initiative.
Said Shahidullah Azim, Vice-President of the BGMEA, “Since the RSC has been operating here for close to three years now, there is no need for the signing of a new Accord. The RSC is a tripartite project of the brands, trade unions and manufacturers,” even as he underlined that everything will not happen as per the demands of the brands, adding, “They don’t raise the price of the product, rather try to lower the price in various ways. Now it will not matter if you put pressure. However, they have made such an agreement without discussing it with us.”
Mixed reactions from workers’ bodies
The agreement to form a new Accord has elicited mixed reactions among workers’ unions and organisations related to workers’ rights even as talking to the media, the Executive Director of Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) — BCWS is a grassroots workers’ rights organisation — Kalpona Akter reportedly said that they are very pleased with the announcement of the signing of the new Accord.
“We are also campaigning for its speedy implementation. This time the Accord is being signed internationally; it will be signed in all the countries that have garment factories. It is a positive sign,” reportedly underlined Kalpona, emphasising all brands have signed the Accord, which will control the activities of the RSC and added, “Accord has worked for the safety of our country’s workers for 8 years…There has been a beautiful change in the proposed Accord. Now there will be no opportunity for third party interference in any complaint. It used to be seen that the owner or the brand used to intervene, now there will be no such opportunity.”
Kalpona reportedly further underlined that Accord has brought credibility to Bangladesh’s garment sector around the world while adding that buyers now have the confidence to source from Bangladesh without any hesitation.
So, there is no choice but to welcome it, proclaimed Kalpona even as Nazma Akter, the President of the Sammilito Garments Sramik Federation and a substitute executive committee member of IndustriALL Global Union (a union federation representing more than 50 million working people in more than 140 countries), on her part stated, “I hope the new Accord will act to protect the occupational health, safety and good health of the workers so that they can work for a long time and get the benefits of service… I also hope that the productivity in the garment factories will increase if the workers feel safe and have sound health. We fought for the new Accord and we won. It is our victory,” while adding, “The new Accord is applicable not only in Bangladesh but also in other countries,”
Meanwhile, speaking to the media, Acting President of the IndutriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC), Salauddin Swapan, reportedly said that the trade unions and their supportive activist organisations have always wanted the Accord to be established again.
“Nothing really works without an international binding. Although the RSC is a three-party project, the influence of the manufacturers is very high here, so in many cases the welfare of the workers is not adequately possible,” reportedly stated Salauddinn while underlining that although there is an obligation to adhere to the principle of neutrality, this is not always possible, and added that having an international body along with the RSC is better for the workers.