OPINION - Rana Plaza: Bangladesh's garment workers need new legal protection

by Christy Hoffman | UNI Global Union
Friday, 23 April 2021 10:55 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: Relatives of victims killed in Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, mourn at the site during the sixth anniversary of the collapse in Savar, on the outskirt of Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Eight years after the deadly factory collapse, fashion brands must show their commitment to Bangladesh's garment workers by signing a new, legally binding worker-safety agreement

Christy Hoffman is UNI Global Union's General Secretary

Valter Sanches is General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union

Out of the rubble of Rana Plaza, the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, IndustriALL and UNI Global union constructed the legally-binding Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Our goal – to ensure that no Bangladeshi worker would ever have to risk their life in a garment factory again.

Our organizations had long been calling on brands sourcing from Bangladesh to remedy dangerous conditions in the country’s garment factories before Rana Plaza. But it took the deaths of 1,100 workers in a single catastrophe - a tragedy so deadly, so horrific and so unnecessary - to finally jolt these companies into squaring up to their responsibilities.

The Bangladesh Accord was ahead of its time, and it remains a model that is lauded for its design and results. The New York Times has called it “the most effective campaign of the globalized era.” A recent European Commission study on due diligence in supply chains, praised the effectiveness and impact of the Accord model and its binding nature.

The Accord was successful, in part, because it made workers a part of the solution through trainings and health and safety committees. It also transformed transparency in supply chains and made brands accountable with legally-binding enforcement.

The Bangladesh Accord also established an independent body to inspect and survey factories supplying signatory brands. Factories had to comply, or they would lose these brands’ business. And brands were responsible for much of the costs to make these factories safe. After a campaign by unions and NGOs, more than 200 brands signed on.

Since its launch in 2013, Accord engineers have carried out over 38,000 inspections in factories covering two million workers. Over 120,000 fire, building and electrical hazards have been fixed. The remediation progress rate at Accord factories is at 93 per cent, while inspectors have disqualified 190 factories for failing to meet safety requirements.

Workers and unions now have the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to report a safety issue without fear of reprisal, and the right to join a union. More than 1.8 million workers have been trained in workplace safety. Workers have made over 3,000 grievances through the health and safety complaints mechanisms.

But this could change if global brands and retailers do not sign a successor agreement – a Global Agreement on Textile and Ready-Made Garment Factory Safety and Health, which would safeguard the achievement made in Bangladesh and expand the principles and commitments to other countries. 

A 2020 decision by the Bangladesh High Court expelled the Accord from the country and handed day-to day Accord operations to the Ready-Made Garment Sustainability Council - a tripartite body made up of brands, factory owners as well as global and national unions.

The RSC is carrying out a similar mandate to the Accord, but it does not have the Accord’s expertise or its legally binding framework with individual brands to enforce change. The success of the RSC, like that of the Accord, will rely in a major way on how global brands and global unions work together to make it happen.

That is why fashion brands must each sign a new, binding agreement that builds on the successes of the Accord. The deal would allow national and global unions to enforce workplace safety measures and ensure that brands are fully meeting their commitments for safety in the Bangladeshi garment industry. It would provide the support needed to make sure that the RSC fully delivers on the Accord principles and commitments.

Now brands have a simple choice to make - recommit to a binding agreement with the global trade unions that will continue making factories safe in Bangladesh - or turn their backs on millions of garment workers in their supply chains and return to the failed system of self-monitoring.

We call on brands to step up and sign up, once more, to keep the progress of the Accord in place. The lives of garment workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere are depending on you. They have not forgotten Rana Plaza – have you?