The clock is ticking for some of the world’s biggest retailers, such as Gap and Wal-Mart, to sign a landmark agreement to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety was initiated by IndustriALL, UNI Global Union, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and a group of NGO partners following the deaths of over 1,127 workers in a building collapse last month.
The legally-binding five year agreement was signed on Monday by a group of seven European retailers including H&M, Inditex (parent company of Spanish clothing and furnishing brand Zara) and Primark.
But despite a looming deadline of 15 May, a bloc of mainly-American retailers are yet to sign.
In fact, the only American retailer to have signed the Accord so far is PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. Other big European retailers such as Benetton, Carrefour and Mango are also yet to sign.
The Accord will bind retailers to blacklist manufacturers whose factories fail to meet safety standards.
Retailers have also pledged to pay for repairs and renovations in the factories. And crucially, the Accord also grants workers the right to refuse dangerous work, in line with the 1981 ILO Convention 155 on occupational health and safety.
The Convention has been ratified only by 60 countries, excluding the US and most European countries.
However, it appears that the non-signees of the new Accord are concerned about how much it will cost to enforce these new rules as well as how legal matters will be resolved in the wake of the agreement.
Gap, for example, has said it will not sign the Accord until changes are made to the rules on settling disputes.
But UNI Global’s Deputy Secretary General Christy Hoffman said the US clothing retailer had mischaracterised the agreement: “Gap would like to give the impression that the agreement would open them up to litigation when in fact it provides for binding arbitration, a common practice for US employers.”
Cases will only go to court when there is an appeal – which very unlikely when arbitration is involved – or when one party does not respect the arbitration award.
None of the other US retailers have said whether they will or will not sign the agreement before 15 May but according to the Reuters news agency, Wal-Mart did release a statement on Monday calling for the Bangaldeshi government to halt production at one of Wal-Mart’s Chittagong-based suppliers, Stitch Tone Apparels, where it found “structural concerns”.
It has since suspended all orders with Stitch Tone.
UNI Global Union General Secretary, Philip Jennings issued a statement imploring retailers not to miss this historic opportunity to improve Bangladesh’s garment industry: “Sign up before it’s too late, save lives and show you are a responsible employer. We are building a momentum for change and it won’t stop here.”
IndustriALL Global Union General Secretary, Jyrki Raina, also commended the “industry-leading clothing brands retailers committed to work with us, to stay in the country and get rid of their unsustainable business model of extreme exploitation. A bloody t-shirt is not much cheaper than a clean one.”
The Rana Plaza collapse in the Dhaka suburb of Savar on 24 April was one of the worst industrial accidents in history.
The rescue operation only ended on Monday, almost three weeks after the nine-story building collapsed; now the spotlight is turning to those who survived the tragedy.
Mojibur Rahman Bhuiyan of ITUC-Bangladesh Council has called on international retailers to pay compensation to the thousands of workers injured, many of whom still require medical support.
The accident also brought Bangladesh’s garment industry, worth 20 billion US dollars, back to the world’s attention.
Despite being the second largest garment exporter in the world after China, the industry is beset with health and safety issues, poverty wages and labour violations.
In November 2012, at least 117 workers were killed in the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka.
Since then, there have been four other deadly garment industry accidents in Bangladesh, including the 24 April factory collapse.
Following widespread worker protests across the country and the global outcry over the Rana Plaza tragedy, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has announced a raft of measures to reform the industry.
In a move that has been welcomed by trade union officials, on Monday, the Bangladeshi government said that workers would be allowed to form unions without obtaining permission from factory owners.
“With collective-bargaining power, tragedies like Rana Plaza would not happen, since owners would not be able to force workers to work in unsafe conditions,” Amirul Haque Amin, president of Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers Federation, told the Wall Street Journal.
The government also announced plans to meet with trade unions and factory owners to set a new minimum wage for garment workers. Currently set at around 3,000 takas (38 US dollars) a month, it is one of the lowest in the world.
But Bangladesh has come under fire for taking so long to commit to change and there is some skepticism over what tangible impact these proposed government reforms will have – especially when more than 20 members of parliament are also said to own garment factories.