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For a better tomorrow

The progress of Accord and Alliance continues to reshape the RMG industry

By Wafiur Rahman

After the Spectrum sweater factory collapsed in 2005, killing 64 workers, hardly anything changed to improve factory safety in Bangladesh. Then the Rana Plaza factory near Dhaka collapsed on April 24 last year, killing 1,129 workers in what was the worst disaster in garment industry history. And that happened just a few months after the Tazreen Fashions fire, which killed 112 Bangladeshi workers.

Reacting to public outrage, Western retailers and apparel brands began a major push to improve safety at the Bangladeshi factories they do business with. It involves a sprint to inspect hundreds of plants each month and a commitment to help correct any safety problems found — all with an eye to preventing another catastrophic collapse or fire.

One group — the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety — has more than 150 members, including many European brands like H&M, Carrefour and Mango, as well as 14 American companies. The other group — the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety — includes 26 companies, all of them American or Canadian, among them Walmart, Gap, Target and Kohl’s.

Created in 2013 just after the Rana Plaza tragedy, the Accord has moved at a steady pace with inspections. It has hired 110 engineers and inspected over 775 factories for structural soundness, unsafe electrical boxes, adequate fire exits and sprinkler systems — a new requirement for factory buildings 75 feet or taller. Somewhat paralleling the Accord, two dozen American and Canadian companies, including Walmart and Gap, have formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. That group has inspected 601 factories, and has had five of them fully or partly closed because of the safety problems found, its officials say.

Dara O’Rourke, an expert on workplace monitoring at the University of California, Berkeley, called the efforts in Bangladesh unprecedented. ‘The accord and the alliance are taking on the lowest end of a low-road industry,’ he said. ‘They’re trying to bring up the worst garment conditions in the world. What they’re doing is really, really hard.’

Both the Accord’s and Alliance’s inspectors have found serious problems: buildings so overloaded that their columns had cracks, flammable fabric storage areas adjoining work spaces, fire stairways leading to the factory floor rather than outside the building. The cost of fixing the problems can be substantial — from several thousand dollars for a few fire doors to $250,000 for a sprinkler system. ‘We’d found problems in every factory we’ve inspected,’ said Brad Loewen, the accord’s chief safety inspector. ‘There were lockable gates at 90% of the factories, and occasionally they were even locked when our engineers were there.’

Rob Wayss, the accord’s executive director for Bangladesh, said his group’s exacting inspections had met with some resistance from factory owners. He said the accord had adhered to the letter of the law in closing plants and had pledged to help factory owners pay lost wages and finance needed safety improvements if they demonstrated that they could not afford those things themselves.

Wayss said one of the accord’s signal achievements was allowing the public to see detailed inspection reports of factories, which include photos showing dangerous electrical boxes and cracks in columns. ‘This showed an unprecedented level of transparency,’ he said. ‘The purpose is to identify safety concerns and have people who work in the factory, people who own the factory and people who produce in the factory understand what needs to be fixed.’

Foreign firms have been promising for around 20 years to do something about Bangladesh’s dangerous factories, to little effect. Now, as then, they will make significant progress only if the government, and the factory owners, also undertake serious efforts to bring about change. Therefore, the progress of the Accord and the Alliance must be taken into serious consideration, and would be better off if they combined forces together to eradicate the challenges of this thriving industry.

Bird’s Eye View

According to a recent report titled ‘Business as Usual is Not an Option’, by Sarah Labowitz and Dorothee Baurmann-Pauly, from New York University’s STERN School of Business, ‘the formation of the Accord and the Alliance represents an unprecedented collaboration among global brands to collectively address structural weaknesses in the garment sector through compliance with common safety standards. For the first time, many of the largest global garment brands and retailers in the world are working to define and implement a common human rights standard on factory safety, monitor compliance with that standard, and offer training and resources for factory improvements over a five year period. This is a significant step forward for a standards based, collective approach to solving a pressing problem of business and human rights.

They had assessed the Accord and Alliance’s contributions, but had also observed some shortcomings over their courses of action. According to the report, ‘Factory owners are caught in a Catch-22. They are required to be in compliance in order to maintain relationships with Accord and Alliance members, but if they cannot afford the remediation the initiatives determine is necessary, no one is obligated to assist them. Furthermore, there is no unified system of oversight of the bilateral negotiations between Accord and Alliance members and their individual factories. This means that each factory is subject to separate, voluntary funding terms depending on their arrangements with individual brands and retailers.

Encouraging greater supply chain transparency by identifying the universe of indirect suppliers is surely a daunting prospect, for Accord and Alliance members and their supplier factories. Understanding what lies beneath the surface of an individual company’s supply chain does not feel like a safe conversation for many buyers and their primary suppliers. What kinds of risks will be uncovered? Who will take responsibility for remediating them? Can current sourcing and pricing practices be sustained in light of new information? These are all reasonable questions, and responsibility for answering them should not fall to the Accord and the Alliance alone.

Undoubtedly, the conversation about greater supply chain transparency is a policy discussion that will play out over many years, in Bangladesh and around the world. But the Accord and the Alliance can play a valuable role in initiating this discussion. Taken together, the initiatives encompass more than 175 global brands and retailers and a significant portion of Bangladesh’s export-oriented garment sector. What does not feel like a safe conversation between an individual buyer and an individual supplier becomes much more so when a group of buyers and suppliers address the problem collectively.

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