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.

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Brazilian NGO addressing environment and human rights receives inaugural Human Rights & Business Award

Justica nos Trilhos - logo

The Brazilian NGO Justiça nos Trilhos will receive the inaugural award from the Human Rights and Business Award Foundation, the recently-formed foundation announced today.  The award, which is accompanied by a $50,000 grant, is made in recognition of “outstanding work by human rights defenders in the Global South or former Soviet Union addressing the human rights impacts of business in those regions”.

As the foundation states in its press release:

Justiça nos Trilhos is an organization working closely with local communities in remote parts of Brazil – including indigenous peoples, peasants, and Afro-descendants – to address human rights and environmental abuses by mining and steel companies, in particular the multinational Vale.

Mining and steel companies have polluted the rivers on which these people depend for drinking water and their livelihoods, polluted the air causing respiratory and eyesight problems, contaminated the soil with industrial waste, displaced communities, and decimated the cultures and lives of indigenous peoples.

The foundation notes:

The human rights defenders of Justiça nos Trilhos, and the local communities they work with, have been subjected to surveillance and retaliatory lawsuits by Vale.

Information about the Vale mining company is available here.  Two stories about the work of Justiça nos Trilhos, the first of which includes Vale’s responses:

Session on Tuesday at UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

BHR ForumDanilo Chammas, a lawyer at Justiça nos Trilhos, will accept the award on behalf of the organization at a session being held at the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva on Tuesday 27 November. The session “will be an interactive learning and discussion opportunity, linking the particular experiences of the award recipient and the lessons learned through those experiences to the Forum’s priority issues including human rights due diligence, sector-focused challenges, and the UN Guiding Principles [on Business and Human Rights]”.

Human Rights & Business Award – Human rights defenders in the Global South
– Tuesday 27 Nov, 18:15-19:45, Room XX, Palais des Nations, Geneva
– The session’s objectives, key discussion questions, and discussants:  here

The Business and Human Rights Award Foundation was established by the founder of the award-winning Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Chris Avery.  The foundation website was launched today in eight languages.

Press release announcing the 2018 Business and Human Rights Award:

 

IFC report on business case for workplace childcare reinforces maquiladora workers’ campaign in Central America

MSN 2016

MSN 2016

Lack of quality, affordable child care is a significant concern for working parents in every region in the world, regardless of country or socioeconomic status.  According to the 2017 OECD report The Pursuit of Gender Equality An Uphill Battle, single parents – usually working moms – in the U.S. and Ireland pay up to 45% of their disposable income for affordable childcare.  In countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the lack of quality, affordable child care is just one of several challenges to leveraging working people and entire countries out of poverty.  Other challenges include the lack of adequate social security provisions and inadequate or non-existent early childhood education programs.  Authors of the 2016 IADB study Cashing in on Education: Women, Childcare and Prosperity in Latin America and the Caribbean argue that the key to boosting Latin American countries out of poverty is female labor force participation – and that child care and early childhood education are key policy measures to move more women into paid work outside the home.  Social security contributions made by working women and their employers strengthen social security systems in poorer countries.  Reducing pay gaps between women and men would strengthen social security systems even more.

Maquiladora workers, trade unions and women’s rights activists in Honduras and El Salvador made workplace funded child care a key platform in their workplace advocacy campaign in 2014.  With the collaboration of Canada-based Maquiladora Solidarity Network, they have focused their advocacy efforts on international apparel brands, industry associations and governments to develop and implement viable childcare solutions.

As outlined in MSN’s  guide to legal requirements and international conventions Childcare in Central America, labor laws in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala require employers to provide child care facilities for their employees.  In 2014, the Government of Honduras, Honduran trade unions and the Honduran Manufacturers Association entered into a tripartite agreement to work on establishing some form of employer-provided child care program for textile manufacturing workers.  Employers have been slow to fund child care centers due to cost and capacity factors as well as lack of clarity in Honduran law – stalling the process.

IFC Tackling Childcare p. 21

IFC 2017, p. 21.

Reinforcement for Central American maquiladora workers’ campaign for employer-provided child care has come from an unexpected source.  The IFC’s new report  Tackling Childcare The Business Case for Employer-Supported Childcare uses case studies to show that not only is sponsoring child care programs the right thing to do, it is the right thing to do to succeed in business.  As expected, the case studies examined include white collar employers in the IT, financial services, and healthcare industries in wealthy countries like the United States, Japan and Germany.  More to the point to maquiladora workers in Central America, the case studies include blue collar employers in garment manufacturing, agriculture and heavy manufacturing industries in low- and middle-income countries like Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and Brazil.  In fact, the IFC report emphasizes the heightened need for high quality employer-sponsored child care in low income countries, where lack of access to quality early education and care programs can have a long-lasting negative impact on the growing minds of children – and where the economic security of families is threatened when parents must choose between working to provide for their families or staying at home to care for their children.

The report shows that investing in child care improves employee performance by reducing absenteeism, enhancing worker productivity, and increasing employee commitment and motivation.  The positive impression and improved  company reputation resulting from providing quality child care can help companies recruit and retain good employees.  In countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala where employer-sponsored childcare is a legal requirement, companies can attract more international business by showing their compliance with local laws.  Thus, making an investment in child care programs can be an income generator for companies.

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A critical assessment: Can Export Processing Zones be transformed into catalytic enclaves for Women’s Economic Empowerment?

In 2011, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) partnered with the World Bank Gender Action Plan and the Government of Canada to publish a study positing the rather novel idea that Special Economic Zones (SEZs – more commonly known as Export Processing Zones or EPZs) might serve as a vehicle for women’s economic empowerment.

The study, entitled Fostering Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Special Economic Zones, provides a comparative analysis of SEZs in eight countries (Bangladesh, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, El Salvador, Jordan, Kenya and the Philippines) and discusses different SEZ initiatives (as well as opportunities and obstacles) that have been developed to contribute to the economic empowerment of women.  The IFC argues that SEZs can contribute to women’s economic empowerment through three dimensions:  (1) fair employment and working conditions; (2) equal access to opportunities for professional investment; and (3) extension of investment opportunities for women.

My recent working paper, A critical assessment:  Can Export Processing Zones be transformed into catalytic enclaves for Women’s Economic Empowerment, considers this novel idea from an international employment and women’s rights perspective.

The idea that EPZs might be utilized as instruments to improve working women’s lives is counter-intuitive.   EPZs have a reputation for sub-standard working conditions and exploitation because they are frequently exempted from local labor laws and other workplace protections.  They are also considered to be a sub-optimal economic development mechanism by the OECD and others.  On the other hand, the IFC’s study points to a number of examples of innovative programs that can be adopted by EPZ administrators – and contains enough frank analysis of obstacles to using EPZ governance structures to empower women – to make its recommendations worth considering.

After assessing the IFC’s idea in light of recent literature discussing the challenges facing workers in EPZs, I come to a somewhat guardedly optimistic conclusion that SEZs and EPZs might serve as a vehicle for policies and programs designed to empower women – but only if EPZ administrators and policy makers change attitudes about independent trade unions and work in partnership with workers, representative trade unions and women’s rights organizations.

Accountability Counsel Internships

One of the premier human rights law firms in the country – Accountability Counsel – is looking for students and recent graduates interested in international law, human rights, accountability, dispute resolution, complex negotiations, environmental justice, corporate accountability, women’s rights, and/or international development.

Accountability Council:

assists communities around the world to defend their environmental and human rights. …

and seeks to

hold corporate and institutional violators accountable through our dual approaches: direct support to communities and policy advocacy.

The organization in particular works on behalf of people and communities harmed by internationally-financed projects through community driven and policy level strategies to access justice.

The following opportunities are now open for our Fall 2016 unpaid Fellow and Intern Programs:

  • Law Fellow – San Francisco – 2L and 3L law students or recent law school graduates (within one year of graduation).
  • South Asia Law Fellow – Washington, D.C – 2L and 3L law students or recent law school graduates (within one year of graduation).
  • Policy Fellow – Washington, D.C. – law students, graduate students currently studying policy and/or another related field, or recent graduates (within one year of graduation).
  • Data Analyst Fellow – San Francisco – graduate students and recent graduates (within one year of graduation) in a related field of data or statistics.
  • Communications & Operations Intern – San Francisco – undergraduate students or recent graduates (within one year of graduation).
  • Data Intern – San Francisco – undergraduate students or recent graduates (within one year of graduation).

Any interested students/recent graduates should consult the website for more information.  To apply, students must complete an online application form.

Technology for Accountability Lab MOOC

 

The Program on Liberation Technology (LibTech) at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law together with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) are proud to launch a free massive open online course dubbed Technology for Accountability Lab.”

The course is geared for global democracy activists, software developers and other stakeholders to conceptualize, plan and implement technological tools and advocacy strategies to improve transparency by opening political and governmental processes.

This 10-week course – which starts on August 9, 2016 – will feature video lectures by Stanford professors Terry Winograd and Larry Diamond, as well as lecturers from NDI, Transparency International, Sunlight Foundation, Creative Commons, ProPublica, and other experts.

To to learn more about the course and register, visit the course link. Please share this announcement widely with interested participants and professional networks (#TFALAB).

Trade & Development, Part II

I’m usually skeptical of explanations for continued poverty in the developing world that point to the history of colonialism. Note, I’m not talking about the continued gap in economic development between developed and developing countries. I’m talking about the existence of deep pockets of extreme poverty after decades of political independence.

As we discussed in our recent post, Trade & Development, one pervasive, and corrosive, explanation for the poverty is corruption. Yet, I find this only a partial explanation. How is it possible to look at another human being and deny their right to the basics of life just to make more money?

In the context of Africa, one remnant of colonial rule may remain pertinent in our search for answers.

Colonial powers carved out their territories ignoring existing ethnograpical and cultural realities. The newly independent nations signed treaties in which they agreed to respect these political boundaries handed down to them. Yet, we know that the cultural memory lives on outside of these country borders.

For example: Just six years after political independence, the Muslim Hausas in northern Nigeria seceded and created the Republic of Biafra. A bloody civil war ended with the surrender to Nigeria by Biafra. Fifty years later the separatist movement continues. The religious and cultural tensions which led to the creation of Bangladesh (predominantly Bengali-speaking Muslim), Pakistan (Muslim) and India (Hindu and Sikhs) out of what had been British India survive today in the conflict over Kashmir. In Europe, Yugoslavia’s borders did not survive the death of President Tito. After several wars, it has been replaced by seven (7) countries organized along religious and ethnic lines.

Partition of Africa

Modern-day borders by colonial legacy (royal blue - France; pink - Britain; purple - Portugal; yellow -Belgium; green - Italy; light blue - Germany). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Modern-day borders by colonial legacy (royal blue – France; pink – Britain; purple – Portugal; yellow -Belgium; green – Italy; light blue – Germany). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At the Berlin Conference (1884-1885), the major colonial powers cut lines across the African interior that grouped together scores and dozens of ethnic groups. These lines also split up existing boundaries.

To use Angola as an example: For over 300 years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Bakongo (the Kongo people), had been united under the rule of the Kingdom of Kongo, one of the most important civilizations to emerge in Africa. Today, these several million people live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, and Angola. From the time of its founding by Ne Lukeni Kia Nzinga until its destruction in 1665 by the Portuguese, the Kingdom of Kongo existed as an organized, stable, politically centralized society. Left alone, this Kingdom might well have evolved intrinsically into a modern-day state. This process was interrupted by the partition of its territory among the European colonial powers.

Modern Consequences

Angola’s population today is divided ethnically into three main groups – the Ovimbundu (37% of the population), the Mbundu (25%), and the Bakongo (13%). The remaining 25% include scores of other ethnic groups, both large and small.

The decades-long war fought by Angola for political independence from Portugal reflected these ethnic lines within the country. Three liberation groups simultaneously fought the Portuguese and each other. The Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) is predominantly Mbundu (what used to be the Ndongo Kingdom). União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) is predominantly Ovimbundu (Bailundo Kingdom). Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA) is predominantly Bakongo (Kingdom of Kongo).

The winners were the MPLA, which has ruled Angola since its political independence. Over time, writes Assis Malaquias in Ethnicity and Conflict in Angola: Prospects for Reconciliation, the additional factors present in the liberation struggle – class and ideology — have diminished, leaving intact the ethnic divide. Effectively, the MPLA rules Angola in the interests of the Mbundu people, comprising at best about one-quarter of the population. The resources of the state have become “the property” of the Mbundu, rather than of the citizens of Angola.

In Angola and much of Africa, the arbitrary colonial divisions have “politicized” ethnicity (Assis Malaquias).

As long as this reality remains essentially ignored by the West, the search for solutions to end the corruption that diverts a country’s resources into the hands of a few, and the poverty this practice creates, is likely to remain elusive.