On April 24, 2013, a garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, altered the fashion industry forever. The deaths of 1,134 garment makers and the injury of 2,500 more made the Rana Plaza collapse the worst accident in fashion history. And since they were making clothing for a variety of well-known Western brands, the tragedy served as a huge wake-up call for the global industry when it comes to the human cost of cheap clothing.
As a response to the Rana Plaza disaster, more than 200 major brands including H&M, Fruit of the Loom and Calvin Klein's parent company PVH signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord is, essentially, a five-year legally-binding agreement between brands and trade unions intended to promote a safer and healthier garment industry in Bangladesh.
Through the Accord, factories are inspected for safety and supported financially in upgrading their safety features by the brands that work with them. On the flip side, factories that refuse to comply with Accord standards could be ejected from the agreement, meaning they lose the business of the international brands who signed on. In short, it uses both the carrot of financial support and the stick of losing business to motivate Bangladeshi factories to do better in terms of worker health and safety.
So, how effective has the Accord been in improving the lives of those who make clothing in Bangladesh, one of the most significant garment exporters in the world? A symposium at the Ford Foundation in New York City on Tuesday convened Accord leadership, Bangladeshi labor activists, academics, journalists and human rights experts to discuss how far we've come — and what needs to happen as the Accord nears the end of its five-year agreement.
The Accord has made a real difference in terms of factory safety
The Rana Plaza collapse happened after factory workers noticed a crack in the walls of their building and notified supervisors, but then were sent to work in the unsafe conditions anyway. Knowledge of these kinds of situations prompted those behind the Accord to focus heavily on making buildings physically safer by introducing inspections, budgeting for specialized engineers and creating robust complaint mechanisms for workers.
"For the first time in Bangladesh's industrial history, factory inspection started," Arun Devnath, the head of English news at Bangladesh News 24, said at the Ford Foundation. "There's a big shift in public perception. Factory safety is no longer a 'Western luxury.'"
Director of the Center for Global Workers' Rights at Penn State Mark Anner had the data to back up Devnath's statement, pointing out that on average, 60 safety violations per factory have been corrected — this included adding proper fire escapes, addressing structural issues and removing electrical hazards. Since the start of the Accord, there's also been a 49 percent drop in the use of multipurpose buildings, which is a significant figure considering that multipurpose buildings (like Rana Plaza itself was) are often not built to properly support the heavy industrial equipment used in garment manufacturing, making them more prone to collapse.
Numerous participants at the forum also pointed out that years of voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility programs mostly failed to implement the kind of building safety in Bangladesh that the Accord has been able to accomplish. The key to the Accord's greater success, as far as former U.S. Department of State International Labor Affairs representative Sarah Fox is concerned, comes from the fact that the Accord is legally binding, requiring brands to share building upgrade costs and governed by both brands and labor representatives.
"With all there is left to be done in Bangladesh, we should not forget that this is no small thing that has been accomplished there," Fox said.
There's still a long way to go when it comes to workers' rights
Despite the Accord's many accomplishments in the realm of building safety, laborer rights have woefully far to go in Bangladesh. A big part of this has to do with a lack of "freedom of association," or laborers' rights to join unions.
"Whether or not you like unions, they are the most effective way for workers to improve wages and working conditions," said former The New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse. "Unfortunately, the Bangladeshi government often blocks the formation of unions, because Bangladeshi manufacturers want the government to block unions. Union leaders have been beaten and arrested."
Other participants shared stories of blacklisting and sexual assault in addition to physical violence, all of which are leveled at workers to dissuade them from joining unions.
Deputy director of the Accord Michael Bride made clear that the Accord has moved the needle some when it comes to helping garment workers know their rights, by distributing pamphlets and holding seminars with more than 2 million workers. Through these programs, the Accord has helped educate workers about a range of issues, like the fact that if a fire starts in the factory, they are not obligated to try and fight it themselves — an idea spread by factory owners who would rather lose a worker's life than see their building burn down. He also noted that a worker complaint hotline went from receiving 62 complaints in the first three years to receiving over 200 in the last 22 months — an increase he claims is a sign that workers are becoming more aware of their legal rights.
In Bride's estimation, the fact that the Accord has ceased to work with the few factories that were unrepentantly violating human rights has sent a strong message to other factory owners in the country.
"When factory owners realized that the Accord would terminate a factory for violations of worker's rights and not just violations about structural or electrical issues... that message has seeped through," Bride said.
Still, many participants underscored that there's a long way to go when it comes to workers receiving fair wages, having the right to refuse unsafe work and enjoying a universal ability to unionize without fear.
The Accord's initial five-year term is drawing to a close this year, but there's still much work to be done. As a result, a new extension to the Accord — which upholds the original goals while adding a major component to address workers' rights to unionize and therefore advocate for their own needs — will come into effect when the initial Accord expires in May, and will last until 2021.
It's a solution with potential, but one major problem comes from the fact that as of January, only 60 of the 220 companies in the Accord have signed on for the second round, according to Reuters. Part of what made the initial Accord able to accomplish many of its goals came from the strength it could draw from numbers. By reaching such a large percent of the garment factories in Bangladesh, the Accord has helped initiate a real shift in the culture of the industry, touching even factories that weren't technically part of the Accord. Some worry that that momentum will be lost if brands don't sign on again for part two — and that they won't be motivated to do so now that they're out of the international media spotlight that Rana Plaza provoked.
"The Bangladesh Accord is a massive victory for all of us, but no victory stays won," Angeles Solis, a national organizer for the United Students Against Sweatshops movement said. USAS used student protests and boycotts to motivate colleges to only make university merch in partnership with brands that had signed the Accord. "It's on all of us to keep it."
How can the average person support the next phase of the Accord? Putting pressure on companies to re-sign for the second phase is a big part of that, which can be done by anyone with a social media handle or the ability to write emails to make themselves heard. The USAS is also hosting a specific set of protest actions against Abercrombie & Fitch, one major brand that has yet to re-sign the Accord, next month for those who'd like to take concrete and specific action. Overall, it's important for those who care about the well-being of the people who make their clothing to never stop asking brands questions about their practices.
"Markets and corporations don't magically conjure up shared prosperity," said executive director of the Solidarity Center Shawna Bader-Blau. "It's the agency of individual citizens coming together collectively... that push governments and corporations to make changes to the way our economies and democracies work that make them more fair."