Nothing positive can be said about the 2012 Tazreen Fashion factory fire, the Rana Plaza factory collapse the following year, or the other preventable disasters that destroyed the lives of garment factory workers and their families in Bangladesh. But those tragedies catalyzed various stakeholders within the country’s garment industry to take action in order to minimize any chance that a similar disaster would occur yet again. Rana Plaza is a huge blot on the reputation of the global fashion industry, made worse by the fact that many companies were slow to contribute to a fund set up to help victims and their families.
One significant outcome since 2013 is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year independent and legally-binding agreement forged between some of the world’s largest apparel manufacturers, retailers and trade unions that resulted in a commitment to bolster the safety of Bangladeshi garment workers.
Rob Wayss, the Accord’s executive director, spoke with TriplePundit by telephone from his office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to give us insight about the progress that has been made on workers’ safety over the past few years.
Wayss brings 20 years of experience working on labor rights, including several within Bangladesh, to the Accord. He spent many years working for the AFL-CIO’s Solidary Center, including four years spent in Bangladesh focused on fundamental rights and workplace issues. His journey then took him to the International Labor Organization (ILO), for which he continued to work on workers’ fundamental rights within the ready-made garment sector. Wayss’ experience leading labor law reform and advocating for improved labor relations at the enterprise level primed him for his position with the Accord, which he has held since 2013.
“Unprecedented” is a term Wayss constantly repeated during the interview, and considering where workplace safety in Bangladesh was in 2013 compared to where it is now, much has been accomplished.
As Wayss pointed out, a similar accord that promised to reform Bangladesh’s garment industry was already agreed to a year before the Rana Plaza disaster. Four signatories had to sign the agreement in order for it to take effect, but only two companies, Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH) and the German fast-fashion company Tchibo, were willing to put their names on the agreement. The the world recoiled at the horrors of Rana Plaza, and in the months afterward, trade union representatives sat down with some of the world’s largest fashion brands with the understanding that, finally, something had to be done.
As a result, the Accord has grown to the point where 217 leading fashion brands signed on as signatories at press time. These brands are solely responsible for funding the Accord — providing the organization an annual budget of approximately $10 million to inspect factories, train workers on safety issues, and enforce six key components to which Bangladesh’s labor ministry, companies and unions have agreed.
“It’s an unprecedented agreement — there’s no other country or other globalized industry where this kind of agreement has been placed,” Wayss said at the beginning of the interview. “And it’s working. And I believe it’s working very well. That being said, while there’s been a tremendous amount of progress, the progress on making the factories safer for Bangladeshi workers is still too slow.”
One of the Accord’s biggest accomplishment is the scale by which factories have been inspected and audited for electrical, fire and structural safety. Before the Accord, factory safety inspections were mostly conducted by generalists with a background in social audits. For the most part, they did little more than carry around a clipboard and trudge through a list of checkboxes. Now, however, these audits are now carried out by professionals who are qualified industrial engineers. “We’ve inspected more than 1,600 factories,” Wayss said with unwavering enthusiasm, “which is amazing accomplishment.”
Wayss estimated that the number of inspections carried out by the Accord has covered approximately 45 percent of the factories in Bangladesh that export garments overseas; those factories, in turn, manufacture 40 to 45 percent of the total value of Bangladesh’s garment industry. One would assume that is quite an impressive feat. And by most measures, the Accord has made a huge difference in securing the improved safety of garment workers.
There are a few caveats, however. Each of those factories inspected had, at a minimum, several safety violations; the typical number was several dozen, which partly explains why a Rana Plaza-type disaster could occur in the first place. But almost two-thirds of those violations have been fixed. “We should be at 100 percent, but 64 percent is still pretty remarkable . . . and we’re absolutely confident that all of them will get fixed.”
Transparency drives participation
Factory owners who want to be part of these fashion companies’ supply chains really do not have a choice but to comply with the Accord. Any factory that proves to be unwilling, or demonstrates a lack of cooperation needed to remediate such safety problems, will not be able to sell to the 217 participating fashion companies, which include the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters, C&A, H&M, Primark and Zara. So far, 31 factories have been disqualified from manufacturing garments for these companies, Wayss told 3p.
More could be done, however: Wayss noted that there are plenty of American fashion brands missing from this alliance, and together they procure garments from about 650 factories. Another 1,200 factories in Bangladesh declined to participate with the Accord.
Key to these changes is transparency. Not only do non-compliant factories run the risk of losing their business, but their safety performance is also accessible on the Accord’s website. All inspection reports are publicly disclosed, so anyone — from factory workers to supply chain managers — can view whether safety improvements at a particular factory are underway or not.
Making a difference for workers
And in terms of worker empowerment, the Accord’s impact has been huge. These factory inspections are not merely done for workers — they are completed by engaging with these factory employees, who are encouraged to be part of the entire process. Going beyond inspections, the Accord works with the participating factories’ management to ensure that a rigorous training program is implemented so that employees fully understand their rights to a safe workplace.
In factories where the workers have signed on with a trade union, the process beings with a committee that includes representatives from management, employees and the trade union. When arrangements are finally made to set up a training, the factory’s operation grinds to a halt. Screens are set up across a shop floor, the training on safety and workers’ rights is held, and all employees receive a handbook that includes information on how to report a workplace safety violation.
The most encouraging result, Wayss told us, is that workers are responding. For example, if a worker files a complaint, he or she has the right to remain anonymous. But at factories that are unionized, Wayss and his colleagues at the Accord have found that workers are often willing to be open during the process, and will even be present at the time when a union representative visits a factory to assess an alleged violation.
Non-unionized factories, however, are a different story. Even though Wayss said procedures are in place to guarantee workers are protected against any form of retaliation from management, employees in those settings are often reticent to make their voices heard. “We still have a lot of work to do,” Wayss acknowledged, “but these safety committees are one way in which we are working hard to make progress on that front.”
The bottom line
Engagement, along with transparency, have been key to ensuring Bangladeshis can enter a factory for their shift and know that the system protecting their safety has made massive improvements in a few short years.
Many analysts also focus on the wages of these workers, which for the most part increased sharply in the wake of the outrage fomented by Rana Plaza. But even more importantly, workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry can feel more secure and looked out for. In the end, many have scored something even more important than wages — their dignity and respect for their human rights.