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Garment worker safety flaws persist 10 years on from Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza collapse

Tom Bottomley
18 April 2023

Ten years on from Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza collapse, where 1,100 garment workers died and 2,000 were injured, many clothing brands – mostly from the US – have still not joined the Accord on Health and Safety in Bangladesh and Pakistan, according to Human Rights Watch.

The International Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which covers Bangladesh, was first signed in May 2013. In December 2022, the Accord announced its expansion to cover garment and textile factories in Pakistan.

Joining the Accord is a way for brands to signal that they back the strongest possible safeguards available to date against fire and building safety risks for factory workers.

As of 11 April 2023, 195 brands are part of the Accord in Bangladesh, and 45 brands are part of the Accord in Pakistan. Many other brands, mostly from the US, are yet to join.

Aruna Kashyap, Associate Corporate Accountability Director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Accord on Health and Safety is the strongest indicator for consumers that a brand is committed to protecting workers from fire and building disasters in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Nearly 200 global brands are part of the Accord and others need to follow.”

The Accord is unique because it is a legally enforceable agreement that brands sign with workers’ unions to implement worker safety measures. The clothing companies are then required to follow protocols developed under the Accord.

Under the Accord, clothing companies cannot prematurely cut business ties with factories after inspections detect fire, electrical, or building safety gaps. Instead, the brands are obligated to support remedial action and give factories sufficient opportunities to correct safety hazards.

Only after the Accord’s secretariat determines that corrective actions have been repeatedly delayed, with no progress on the part of a factory, are brands obliged to responsibly end business ties with the factory.

Under the Accord, all inspection reports and remediation efforts are “published for everyone to see”. Workers can pursue arbitration if brands breach their contractual agreement with workers’ unions.

Adding complexity to the situation, a variety of other private initiatives exist alongside the Accord, including social audits and certifications, and clothing brands can use those without accurately explaining how other private initiatives differ from the protections of the Accord. That “can confuse or inadvertently mislead consumers, investors, and regulators” to believe the safeguards under those other private initiatives are equivalent or similar to the Accord.

Some commonly used private initiatives include standard third-party audit programmes like Sedex’s SMETA audit and amfori’s BSCI audit. However, Human Rights Watch says that where such firms administer social audits, certifications, or provide other services to mitigate health and safety risks for workers, they “should disclose the limitations of their services” and offer an accurate comparison with the Accord’s features if they do not already do so.

Kashap added: “Firms that don’t already take steps to publicise the limitations of their health and safety risk mitigation services should be up-front about them and provide an accurate comparison to the Accord’s features.

“They should be clear that they don’t provide access to legally enforceable remedies for workers like the Accord does.”

Image credit: 2021 Bangladesh Center for Works Solidarity

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