By Yo Shiina
Following the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April of 2013, which claimed the lives of 1,129 people, two historic initiatives were launched by the world’s major apparel brands: the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (“the Accord”) and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety (“the Alliance”). Both initiatives seek to establish mechanisms for preventing fire and safety hazards. These initiatives are all the more relevant now as increasing international attention focuses on meaningful change in the apparel sector.
During the Spring 2015 semester, the Corporate Social Responsibility Clinic at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice undertook a review of these two mechanisms to identify structural differences and similarities between them, and to assess the current status of inspections and implementation measures at the supplying factories of some of the major signatory brands.
A FACTORY COLLAPSE AND AN INDUSTRY UNDER SCRUTINY
Ready-made garments (RMG) is the largest industry in Bangladesh, comprising nearly 50 percent of the nation’s economy, according to a report by the Institute of Developing Economies. Approximately 4 million workers work in the RMG industry, 80 percent of whom are women. Through their work, they indirectly support 40 million people, which is approximately a quarter of the entire national population. A typical RMG factory worker may earn about $1,176 dollars per year for six 10-hour work days per week for 300 days a year. This is after the 77 percent wage increase in 2013.
Due to a lack of land space and high population density, garment factories are typically built one upon the other, and in some cases, in former swamp areas. With multiple factory owners sharing the same building, structural weakness tend to be overlooked—highly stressed columns and cracks in beams often go unnoticed. It was in this backdrop that the multiple garment factory complex Rana Plaza, housing five workshops and 2,000 workers, collapsed on April 24, 2013.
Even before the Rana Plaza incident, fire and safety hazards were common in Bangladesh factories. For example, a fire at Tazreen Fashions killed 112 workers in November 2012. Responding to this, the Ministry of Labour and Employment of Bangladesh, in a joint effort with the International Labor Organization (ILO), coordinated the adoption of the National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity in the Ready-Made Garment Sector in Bangladesh, which was signed by the government, employers and workers. This plan set out a blueprint and timeline for respective parties to implement changes ensuring workers’ safety and building integrity. Although the Plan—originally set in place even before the Rana Plaza tragedy—was designated as a response to Rana Plaza collapse, the international community continued to question fashion brands’ culpability in the collapse, even though the brands did not directly own the supplier factories. Images of fashion brands’ labels amid the rubble quickly circulated the Internet, along with media reports of workers laboring in the often abusive environment for a mere pittance until the moment the building collapsed over them. Spurred by the calls for accountability, the brands took action: the Accord was launched on May 15, 2013 and the Alliance on July 10, 2013.
THE ACCORD AND THE ALLIANCE
Although both the Accord and the Alliance share the same goal of preventing fires and building safety hazards in Bangladesh and are based on the National Tripartite Plan, there are some marked differences between the two instruments. The Accord is often described as an “European” initiative, as its over 260 members include many top European companies, such as Benetton and Mango. Some American companies such as PVH and Abercrombie & Fitch are also signatories. The Alliance, on the other hand, comprises of 26 North American brands and companies, including J.C. Penny, GAP and Walmart.
The Accord is a legally binding agreement signed by brands, trade unions and NGOs. Over 260 companies have signed onto the Accord. Most signatories are from Europe, but some are also from North America and Asia. Six Bangladeshi labor unions and four global labor unions have also joined the Accord, and four international NGOs are currently acting as witnesses. Signatory companies commit to the Accord’s activity and obligations for the full duration of its existence. Each company commits to maintaining long-term sourcing relationships with its main suppliers, conditioned upon the supplier’s compliance with fire and building safety measures. The Alliance, on the other hand, is comprised of 26 North American brands and retail companies, and is not legally binding in the same sense: signatory companies don’t commit to any long-term sourcing relationships or assistance in remedial measures, and membership can be terminated at any time.
Under the Accord, signatory companies must ensure factory workers’ employment during necessary fire and building safety remediation. They must also work with suppliers to ensure that remedial measures are financially possible. Under the Alliance, the signatory companies have no such obligation. Also, while the Accord obligates signatory companies to maintain long-term sourcing relationships with complying factories, there is no such requirement under the Alliance, whose members may also resign at any time.
Many similarities also exist between the two initiatives. Both the Accord and the Alliance have a limited time span of 5 years to accomplish their objectives (although, in theory, both plans may be extended). Both provide fire and safety training programs and a hotline for factory workers to report dangerous working conditions. And the two pledged to conduct safety inspections of the supplier factories contracted with their company signatories. To that end, signatories are required to publicly disclose their list of contracting supplier factories and work with third party inspectors. However, while the Accord appoints an independent Chief Safety Inspector, who is free from the Accord’s interference except in cases of suspected incompetence or wrongdoing, to oversee inspections, the Alliance employs multiple inspectors who are under its supervision. Moreover, under the Alliance, a signatory company can select the inspector for its own supplier factories.
On top of these efforts, the Accord and the Alliance both publish Corrective Action Plans (CAPs), which are inspection reports for the supplier factories that set out issues relating to structure, fire and electricity in the inspected factories. A review of some of the CAPs conducted by the Clinic, in partnership with an international NGO, identified some recurring patterns: inadequate, blocked or locked exits; electric wires and cables kept under hazardous conditions; and building structure risks, such as highly-stressed columns and beams. To date, both the Accord and the Alliance have completed inspections of all of their respective signatory companies’ suppliers. Some factories were shut down, and non-complying factories that remained open despite warnings were disclosed; signatory companies can no longer contract non-complying suppliers. Visibility of such information is expected to not only heighten public awareness, but also impact the behavior of other supplier factories.
ENSURING SAFETY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
While the difference between the Accord and the Alliance sparked debate in the initial stage, there have been some concerns that the two initiatives only cover a part of the entire 5,000 to 6,000 RMG factories in Bangladesh. The factories supplying covered under the Accord or the Alliance comprise only a part of the whole RMG industry, and non-signatory companies’ supplier factories remain outside the supervision of the international community. Moreover, one of the major obstacles in bringing about transparency and enforcement is the strong political influence exercised by many of the supplier factory owners, many of whom strongly favor the status quo. Another is how the trade association, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has an openly hostile attitude against workers’ rights and changes to the existing structure. Under this political landscape, even if a more worker-friendly law was enacted, the enforcement remains difficult.
It is undeniable, however, that these initiatives—which were motivated by consumer protests and implemented despite the fact that member brands do not directly own their supplier factories—made possible what was before unthinkable. This momentum for increased accountability and worker’s rights is all the more relevant after a recent deadly fire that killed 72 workers in the Philippines. The conditions at the factory was a virtual “death trap,” with windows covered with steel mesh and an inadequate number of exit doors. Initiatives such as the Accord and Alliance, even with their differences, can continue to promote awareness about the chain that links consumers, brands, corporations, supplier factories and labor all together, and what we as stakeholders can do to prevent these preventable tragedies. Though perhaps imperfect, they are a step in the right direction. In today’s world, where the fashion industry is based on increasingly frequent turnover during short selling seasons and is raking up revenues by selling higher volumes of cheaper fashion, we must continue to analyze and appraise what changes these legal instruments have brought on and what more we need to see moving forward.
Yo Shiina is a 3L student at Fordham Law School. She participated in the Leitner Center Corporate Social Responsibility Clinic.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo credit: NYU Stern BHR/Creative Commons