we must keep pressure on brands to protect garment workers

Launched in 2013 after the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza -- a garment factory producing clothes for the British high street -- the legally binding fire and safety agreement, the Bangladesh Accord, must be renewed by May.

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Mar 6 2018, 9:54am

It took about 90 seconds for the Rana Plaza garment factory to collapse on 24 April 2013. The eight storey building crumbled in on itself killing approximately 1,138 garment workers and injuring thousands more. The event sent shockwaves around the world, drawing widespread condemnation of safety standards in the garment manufacturing industry. Across the globe, people looked at the clothes in their cupboards and wondered what kind of conditions they had been made in. Angry demonstrations were held outside stores and company headquarters, and social media campaigns mushroomed. Fashion Revolution Day encouraged people to wear their clothes inside out, to expose the label, and post a picture on social media, asking the brand they’d purchased, #WhoMadeMyClothes?

Factories at Rana Plaza made clothes for Benetton, Bon Marché, Mango, Matalan and Primark, among others. Hundreds more companies used low-cost Bangladeshi factories, including luxury brands like Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Hugo Boss. “You had the entire fashion industry constructed on practices of complete disregard for human life,” says Christy Hoffman of UNI Global Union, a global trade union federation. “You had these big name brands operating in places that were unfit to even walk through the door.”

In the years after the collapse, campaigners fought to ensure the brands manufacturing at Rana Plaza paid compensation to victims and their families. They also fought to ensure that nothing comparable would ever happen again. The public outcry over the Rana Plaza collapse, and garment factory standards in general, allowed global trade unions and NGOs to push brands to sign up to a new factory safety system called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. In the five years since, the Accord has brought progress in the sector -- progress which is now under threat as some brands delay in committing to vital safety standards.

Before the Accord, brands had handed responsibility for safety standards to auditing companies and voluntary agreements. As hard as it is to believe, Rana Plaza itself had been declared fit for purpose by such safety inspections. In other cases, factories were declared unsafe but with no requirement for the brand or the factory to make changes. In short, it was a worthless system that killed thousands of people.

The Bangladesh Accord aimed to transform the Bangladeshi garment industry. It is legally binding, requires brands to disclose which factories they use, has a strict inspection regime in place, and makes brands responsible for the repair bills in the factories they use. Non-compliance is met with arbitration, or ejection from the Accord. Almost 1,600 factories are now covered by the Accord.

"As hard as it is to believe, Rana Plaza itself had been declared fit for purpose by such safety inspections. In other cases, factories were declared unsafe but with no requirement for the brand or the factory to make changes."

“In the early years, brands thought this would be just another auditing system… but we were serious,” Christy Hoffman explains. “We’re transforming the industry in Bangladesh from one in which every factory was unsafe, to having a core group of factories that are reaching those higher standards where workers can be safe when they’re on the job.”

The Accord has now been renewed by its founders for another three years, and brands are being asked to reaffirm their commitment to worker safety. In June 2017, a cluster of brands from around the world stepped forward to sign the 2018 Accord: Primark, H&M, Inditex (Zara), C&A, Helly Hansen, Otto, KiK, Aldi South, Aldi North, Lidl, Tchibo, LC Waikiki, Kmart Australia and Target Australia.

A Primark spokesperson told i-D: “Primark welcomes the renewal of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. We were one of the first signatory brands to the agreement and we look forward to continued constructive collaboration with all those involved. To date, the initiative has brought sustainable positive change to the Bangladeshi garment industry and we are keen to progress this important work.”

There are, however, a number of high profile retailers who are yet to sign the renewed 2018 Accord. Over 200 brands signed the 2013 Accord, but only 110 have so far signed up for 2018. While some brands have simply stopped manufacturing in Bangladesh, there is still a gap.

Among British brands yet to renew their commitment is Sainsbury’s. They told i-D that they are reviewing the 2018 Accord and are in discussions around whether to re-commit. A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “We’re actively involved in the discussions taking place with the Accord Steering Group and other European brands to ensure this important progress continues and so a sustainable legacy can be maintained with third parties in Bangladesh.”

"Over 200 brands signed the 2013 Accord, but only 110 have so far signed up for 2018. While some brands have simply stopped manufacturing in Bangladesh, there is still a gap."

Having told i-D they were reviewing their decision, Marks and Spencer agreed to sign the Accord as this article was being published, as did Arcadia, though they did not respond to requests for comment. When signing in 2013, Arcadia stated, “We are clearly saddened by the events in Bangladesh factories, and want to play our part in contributing to an industry initiative that aims to make positive changes for the workers within the garment industry in that country.”

The 2018 Accord will already cover two million workers and almost 1,600 factories in Bangladesh, stakeholders say they already have a critical mass with which to continue the work that started in 2013. But there has been disappointment that a group of key British brands have still not signed up. Christy Hoffman says she hopes brands are not seeking to capitalise on diminished media attention around fashion safety standards.

“Not signing the 2018 Accord means that 100 days from now workers will be left in unmonitored factories,” stated Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of Clean Clothes Campaign in a press release on the issue. “As a consequence, garment brands will fall short on their due diligence obligations to keep the workers in their supply chain safe.”

The horrors of Rana Plaza continued long after the last body was buried. Hundreds of children lost parents, some had breakdowns and dropped out of school, others refused to be even temporarily parted from their remaining parent -- clinging on to legs and shirt sleeves.

The survivors suffered life changing injuries, crushed and lost limbs, spinal injuries and psychological trauma. The mental anguish of living through one of the worst industrial incidents in human history caused post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, extreme anxiety, inability to work, fear of loud noise, and depression. These conditions were shared by the thousands of volunteers who worked for days in the sweltering heat to dig people, alive and dead, out of the rubble. Rubble mixed with sewing machines and coat hangers, jeans, dresses and T-shirts -- that were headed to high street stores.

Garment factories in the Global South have caused unfathomable human misery. The pretence that voluntary, unregulated safety audits were fit for purpose had led to catastrophe. “We’ve got to keep the pressure on,” Christy Hoffman concludes. “We don’t want to go back to the old days.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the 2018 Accord was five years, not three. We have amended this and apologise for the mistake.