On borrowed time: Five years after the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh Accord faces court-ordered closure

 

Five years ago, sometime before 9am on 24 April 2013, cracks started to appear in the Rana Plaza building in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh, revealing a structural failure that caused the eight-story commercial building to collapse. The building contained five garment factories supplying major global brands and retailers.

It only took 90 seconds for Rana Plaza to collapse, but it took two weeks to search for the dead. When the search ended on 13 May 2013, the total of lives lost was over 1,100.

The tragedy spurred textile and clothing companies into action. In May 2013, global fashion brands and retailers and trade unions signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the “Bangladesh Accord“), a ground-breaking worker safety agreement. Adidas, H&M and Esprit are amongst the signatories.

The most famous pillar of the Bangladesh Accord is its five-year legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure a safe working environment in the Bangladeshi ready-made garment industry. This feature gained notoriety when a case was filed at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in October 2016 by two global unions, IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union, to hold two unnamed multinational companies to account. The case eventually settled for $2.3 million in January 2018.

There are, however, additional components to the Accord, including, importantly, the creation of an independent inspection programme.

The Accord, which gathered the support of more than 250 brands and retailers from over 20 countries, was originally established for a limited time of five years – until May 2018.

In May 2017, the Remediation Coordination Cell (“RCC“) was established under the government of Bangladesh’s National Initiative, with a view to take over from the Accord to implement the remediation process for garment factories.

In June 2017, leading fashion brands and global trade unions announced at the OECD Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct that they would enter into a new agreement, which would come into effect in 2018. Later that year, a transition agreement (the “2018 Transition Accord“) was signed, extending the Accord’s mandate for another three years, and allowing it to continue its operations until the RCC was ready to take over the platform’s responsibilities.

Everything seemed on track to guarantee a smooth continuation of the Accord’s activities… until judicial proceedings were started by a Bangladeshi factory owner who had failed to remedy safety breaches, and was therefore removed from the list of factories that Accord signatories are allowed to source from.

The factory owner sued the Accord. In April 2018, in an extraordinary unilateral action, the Bangladesh High Court issued a “suo moto” restraining order against Accord office operations. The restraining order is due to come into force on 30 November. This means that, in two days, the Bangladesh Accord will have to close its Dhaka office, severely limiting its scope of work and its ability to inspect thousands of factories supplying clothes for brands such as H&M, Esprit and Primark.

The government of Bangladesh does not seem overly worried. In June 2018, the Minister of Commerce, Tofail Ahmed, was quoted as saying that Bangladesh no longer needed the Accord as the government-led RCC would look after matters of workers safety, and that “factories are now safe and work-friendly“.

Not everyone shares this rosy picture, however.

On 15 November 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution ringing the alarm on the human rights situation in Bangladesh. In the resolution, the European Parliament expressed serious concern at the Accord being ejected from Bangladesh.

The resolution also noted that the RCC “does not yet have the capacity to monitor and enforce health and safety requirements, with serious implications for the safety and rights of factory workers“. The European Parliament urged the government of Bangladesh to immediately recognise and implement the 2018 Transition Accord.

The Accord itself is taking action against the High Court judgment. Rob Wayss, the Accord’s executive director, told Reuters on 28 November: “We have submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court… and are working to have a stay issued against the High Court judgment that would close down our office“. Retailers seem to disagree with the government’s optimistic assessment too, with major fashion brands Esprit and H&M both stating that the closure of the Accord’s Dhaka office would be premature.

In the five years since the Rana Plaza disaster, extraordinary progress had been made. As a private sector-led initiative, the Accord benefits from better funding than the state-run RCC. It also has stronger leverage, as signatories can threaten to stop using unsafe factories to push for change. The overall progress rate of remediation at the 1,620 Accord-covered factories is a staggering 85%.

One crucial factor in this progress is the Accord’s role in inspecting factories, identifying remedial actions and monitoring safety remediation over the years. With the RCC still under-staffed and in its infancy, and safety fixes still incomplete at over 500 of the factories the Accord oversees, there is still a lot of work to be done.

With many garment manufacturers sitting in the Bangladeshi parliament, and with the garment industry making up 82% of the country’s exports (and therefore carrying significant weight), it is doubtful whether the government can adequately inspect factories and monitor remediation.

A strong, fully-developed mechanism is needed to ensure the horrors of Rana Plaza (which were deemed so horrifying that a film depicting the real-life story of survivor Reshma Begum was banned by high court judges) never happen again. Unfortunately, at the moment, it is unclear what will happen with the Accord and the RCC.

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