On the morning of the 24th of April 2013, the nine story Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing 1137 people, and injuring more than 2500 workers. Images of this tragic event were broadcast to the world. When the dust settled, it became clear that this was not just a Bangladeshi tragedy, but an international one: 29 international fashion brands sourced garments from the different factories housed in the faulty building. Rana Plaza was depicted in international media as a “wakeup call”, an “eye opener”, the end of “business as usual” in the global garment supply chain, and that there would be a change to the way clothes are produced.
Shortly after, promising steps were taken. The government of Bangladesh amended the labor law and started hiring additional factory inspectors. The minimum wage was increased. The owner of the Rana Plaza building was arrested and is currently awaiting his trail. However, actions didn’t stop at the national level. Only a month after Rana Plaza, the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety (“The Accord”) was agreed upon between international trade unions, Bangladeshi trade unions, and international brands and retailers with several NGOs as witnesses and the ILO as the chair.
By involving trade unions representing workers on the shop floor as equal partners, the Accord is a milestone in ensuring safer working conditions at the bottom of the supply chain. More than 1000 factories have been inspected so far by the international engineering team of the Accord, with more inspections to follow. After every inspection the engineering team develops specific and transparent remediation plans if necessary, which are then simultaneously communicated to factory owners and unions. International brands must financially support remediation.
[vision_pullquote style=”3″ align=””] By involving trade unions representing workers on the shop floor as equal partners, the Accord is a milestone in ensuring safer working conditions at the bottom of the supply chain. [/vision_pullquote]
The Accord has achieved what years of voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) measures or social audit initiatives launched by international brands have not. It has improved safety in garment factories in Bangladesh and has done so with accountability, demonstrating what can be achieved when brands and trade unions work together in a legally binding framework. And the Accord is good for business too: In October 2014 the garment employers association BGMEA admitted that factories that were inspected by the Accord have received an increasing amount of orders from international brands having convinced them that they are safe.
With improved safety, garment exports from Bangladesh have increased to 24.5 billion US dollars. The growing industry currently employs more than four million workers, which is one of the factors that have seen Bangladesh reduce poverty and improve on several socioeconomic fronts. The importance of the RMG industry for Bangladesh is easily agreed upon by trade unions, factory owners and development experts. While fires and building collapses in Bangladesh have become less likely thanks in large part to the Accord, what else needs to happen to prevent such tragedies in the future?
There is often a misconception in the West that changing working conditions in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia or Pakistan is solely dependent on enlightened consumers and the good will of international brands who feel the pressure from their customers. While continued consumer pressure, rather than boycotting, is important – as are instruments such as the Accord – these are only part of the solution. Even more important is the role of workers in changing the conditions that need to be changed, and to have influence on decisions which directly affect them.
Fast fashion requires tight deadlines, catering to the accelerating changes in the taste of mostly Western consumers. To get clothes from the factory floor to the shelf, the burden ultimately falls on the workers who are pressured by factory owners to produce the clothes, and in turn are pressured by brands to deliver orders. This can simply be unrealistic and lead to dangerous decisions. The day before Rana Plaza collapsed, the structural integrity of the building had already been questioned by workers and engineers, as cracks in the wall were discovered. Workers who didn’t want to enter the building because of safety concerns were confronted by factory management with the choice of either coming into work or losing their jobs. There was no collective voice for the workers to refuse entry into an unsound workplace. Not a single worker killed or injured was a member of a trade union. Had they been, the death toll of Rana Plaza would probably not have been as high.
Trade unions have the power to represent the concerns of workers, and in turn workers can take collective action on decisions that affect their safety including the refusal to enter a faulty building. Sustainable change can’t be achieved by well-meaning consumers trying to figure out where and what to buy, nor by brands who make their good will to workers a selling point. Better working conditions can only be achieved when workers at the beginning of the supply chain have a bigger say in the conditions they believe are acceptable to work safely in. Bottom up, not top down is the way to go. This bottom up approach, however, requires solidarity from elsewhere.
There is good news coming out of Bangladesh that workers are making use of the amended labour law and are organizing to more effectively advocate for better working conditions. In the months after Rana Plaza, Bangladesh has experienced a growing number of trade union registrations in its textile sector with more and more workers becoming union members. While representative unions are one of the best early warning systems to prevent catastrophes like Rana Plaza, they also function as a mechanism to avoid the often violent conflict on the streets in front of Bangladesh’s garment factories through mediating between workers, employers, and police. Unions and factory management can then jointly identify and address existing grievances before violent skirmishes happen outside the factory gates. An atmosphere of social partnership for peaceful industrial relations that allows for dialogue and compromise is ultimately good for workers and the growing RMG industry in Bangladesh. There is only one area where no compromise is possible and that is workers safety and dignity.
[vision_pullquote style=”3″ align=”right”] Sustainable change can’t be achieved by well-meaning consumers trying to figure out where and what to buy, nor by brands who make their good will to workers a selling point. Better working conditions can only be achieved when workers at the beginning of the supply chain have a bigger say in the conditions they believe are acceptable to work safely in. [/vision_pullquote]
Despite first successes, still less than five percent of the workers in Bangladesh’s RMG industry are organized in trade unions. The “window of opportunity” post-Rana Plaza is closing, and in order for the trade union movement in Bangladesh to grow, established trade unions in the country must prove to workers that they can represent the interests of members, with the ongoing solidarity and support of the international movement. At the same time, employers need to change their attitude. Many factory owners in Bangladesh continue to perceive unions as a potential threat to their business and measures are sometimes taken to prevent their formation.
Brands can also make a difference if they remind the factories they source from of the importance of upholding international labour standards and encourage engagement with workers representatives. They can also place more orders at factories with independent and free trade unions or withdraw orders from factories in which trade unions rights are undermined by the factory management. If brands truly want to meaningfully contribute to this process, such a gesture should not be voluntary. Governments in countries hosting brands could look into better ways of demanding accountability from these brands for what happens further down the supply chain. The globalization of trade has to be accompanied by a globalization of accountability. Why for example, is it not possible to take a brand to court in Germany or the UK when workers are injured because of unsafe work places in a South Asian factory they are sourcing from?
Responsibility ultimately lies with the profit. And the biggest profit in the garment industry is not made in Bangladesh. The challenge remains that workers in Bangladesh and other producing countries have little negotiation power compared to decision-makers in the headquarters of international brands who have immense powers over the working conditions in the countries they source from. Trade unions in Bangladesh are limited to negotiating with factory owners in Bangladesh that control only a small margin of the overall profit of a piece of garment.
The Accord is an example for how trade unions from Bangladesh can become equal partners along the international supply chain but this agreement will end in four years. Similar international agreements could be developed covering additional sectors and countries or build upon existing agreements and conventions to incorporate the emerging issues of a complex, global supply chain. So far, while things have changed in Bangladesh’s RMG sector, more needs to be done. And the best starting point to do this is where garments begin to be produced: with the workers on the factory floor.
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