A Major Agreement Protecting Bangladeshi Garment Workers Is About to Expire

The Accord made factories safer. Now is a bad time for it to disappear.

Bangladeshi garment worker

Getty Images/Frédéric Soltan

It has been eight years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,132 people and injuring roughly 2,500 others. The collapse was attributed to several factors, including being built on an unstable base with substandard materials and having more floors than the permit allowed.

When safety concerns were raised the day before the collapse, workers were evacuated temporarily for inspections to occur, but then quickly sent back. Much of the pressure to return to work was connected to the fast turnaround times for clothing orders made by major brands in Europe and the United States. Without union protection, the workers had no choice but to do what their managers told them. 

That day was a turning point for the garment industry. Brands whose clothing was produced at the Rana Plaza factory were shamed into taking action. Consumers who had taken dirt-cheap clothing prices for granted realized someone was paying for them. There was a surge in support for garment workers and sudden new pressure on factory owners to improve safety regulations, inspect infrastructure thoroughly, and implement fire safety codes. 

Rana Plaza collapse
After the Rana Plaza factory collapse, photographed April 25, 2013. Getty Images/NurPhoto

Two agreements were put in place to ensure that real change happened. One was the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh—also known as the Bangladesh Accord. It is a legally binding agreement between brands and worker unions where each side held equal seats in terms of governance. 

Adam Minter reported for Bloomberg: "[The Accord] required that brands assess whether their suppliers’ factories meet health and safety standards, and make funds are available for any needed improvements (and for worker pay, if furloughs are required)." 

It was a huge success, but now the Accord is set to expire on May 31, 2021. Brands appear unwilling to reinstate it, which deeply frustrates the many garment workers, union leaders, and activists who recognize the impressive steps it achieved.

Kalpona Akter, founder and director of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, spoke to press during an online conference last week, organized by Re/make. "Phenomenal progress was made, but brands need to sign on again to continue to protect that progress," she said.

She pointed out that the Accord has been responsible for conducting 38,000 inspections in 1,600 factories affecting 2.2 million workers. It found 120,000 industrial hazards (fire, electrical, structural), most of which were addressed. The initiative was responsible for removing 200 factories from its list because they were dangerous or close to collapse. 

The Accord worked, Kalpona Akter said, because it was a binding agreement, not voluntary. Not only should brands sign on again to protect the progress that was made, but it should be extended into other garment-producing countries, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, however, the Accord was only ever meant to be temporary—but what would replace it has remained controversial. Another agreement called the Ready-Made Garments Sustainability Council (RSC) was supposed to take the Accord's place, but garment unions have pushed back against what Kalpona Akter described as a "power-imbalanced board [of directors]" and lack of binding targets. 

Last week the unions formally announced their withdrawal from the RSC, with a press release stating, "The global unions cannot accept replacing the extremely effective Accord model with an alternative proposal from brands derived from the failed approaches of the decades prior to the Rana Plaza industrial homicide." Without the unions' support, the RSC loses credibility as an overseeing body for the garment industry. 

In light of COVID-19, it seems unconscionable that brands wouldn't renew the Accord, at the very least until the pandemic is over. It has hit Bangladesh hard, with workers forced to continue working in factories despite the rest of the country being under strict lockdown. 

Nazma Akter, founder and director of Awaj Foundation, an organization that advocates on workers' behalf, told press that even public transportation is shut down, and yet workers are expected to be at their factory jobs for a 6 AM start. "The government recommendations aren't being respected by factory owners," she said. "This is the reality—that nobody cares about the workers." 

Award-winning photographer and labor activist Taslima Akhter expressed her frustration at the fact that, despite garment workers generating huge profits for fashion companies for more than 40 years, those companies "were not willing to pay a month's extra salary to protect the workers who were sacrificing their time, even their lives, to run the global economy."

Furthermore, brands notoriously canceled, postponed, or refused to pay for orders worth $40 billion that they had placed prior to the pandemic. It put factories in a terrible position, unable to pay workers and certainly incapable of implementing the safety protocols that would reduce the spread of the virus. The Pay Up Fashion campaign has had some success at getting brands to pay what they owe, but the situation is far from resolved. 

This is why the Accord matters more than ever—or at least something that demands the same level of accountability. As Minter reported for Bloomberg: "Without a binding accord to ensure compliance—and, more pertinently, financial help from the brands—factories already squeezed by declining orders can’t be trusted to continue such expensive safety work." 

As wearers of clothes produced internationally, we all have a stake in this. Advocacy on our part will notify brands of our awareness of the issues and our desire for it to change. It's important to speak out, to sign the Pay Up Fashion campaign petition that lays out several actions, one of which is Keep Workers Safe, and to express our support for garment workers by calling on favorite brands to renew the Accord, as Pay Up did in this letter to H&M's head of sustainability.