On April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories, collapsed. At least 1,138 garment workers were killed in the disaster, which became known as the deadliest tragedy in the history of the global garment industry. An estimated 3,000 children lost at least one parent.
More than one year later, families continue to struggle not only with the trauma but also with the economic hardship. The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, set up to compensate injured workers and families of the deceased, and facilitated by the International Labour Organization, awaits full payments from the buyers.
In the year prior to the building collapse, two companies agreed to a legally binding agreement to make their Bangladeshi supplier factories safe. But it wasn’t until the horror of Rana Plaza that dozens more companies joined in through the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Now, 169 apparel brands and retailers have signed the accord and paid their dues. Combined, they source from at least 1,572 factories, where about two million workers are employed.
What does the accord entail?
The accord is a five-year program of thorough, independent inspections by fire, structural and electrical engineers with detailed public reporting. The buyers must ensure factories have the necessary financing to undergo all required repairs and renovations to address the identified hazards. The companies commit to maintaining orders in their supplier factories, working with suppliers to secure financing and ensure renovations are completed.
Workers and unions have an important role in the program, both as members of the steering committee and at a technical level. Trade unions are given access to factories, and are involved in occupational health and safety committees, helping educate workers about fire and building safety risks and enabling respect for workers’ right to refuse unsafe work.
To date, the accord has inspected more than 1,000 factories and published inspection reports and corrective action plans for 268 factories online. Once the first round of inspections has been completed, there will be a round of followup inspections to ensure the necessary remediation work has taken place. The accord has four years remaining in its scope.
Who are the signatories?
Among the 169 company signatories are some of the largest apparel brands and retailers in the world. The list includes H&M, the largest buyer of Bangladeshi apparel; Loblaw, Canada’s largest retailer; Tesco and Carrefour, two of the largest retailers in the world; and Inditex, the world’s largest fashion retailer. The signatories include companies based in 20 countries around the world. American company PVH (owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands) was the first signatory, later followed by another 15 U.S. companies, including Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Fruit of the Loom.
The accord has 10 union signatories: eight Bangladeshi union federations and two global union federations — IndustriALL and UNI Global Union. The four witness signatories are the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network and Worker Rights Consortium.
What is new about the accord?
Global corporations in many industries rely on voluntary codes of conduct and confidential auditing systems with the stated purpose of ensuring the human rights and welfare of workers in their supply chains. Tragically, these systems have failed to protect workers in the apparel industry.
The factories involved in all three of the recent apparel catastrophes — the Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan, killing 259; the Tazreen Fashions fire in Bangladesh, killing 112; and the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, killing 1,138 — had been audited multiple times or certified as safe and decent workplaces.
The fundamental flaws of these corporate monitoring programs are that they are voluntary, confidential and do not engage worker organizations (such as unions) in a meaningful way. As a result, global brands can inspect a factory, find it difficult to fix and walk away without telling the local authorities, much less the workers.
The Bangladesh accord marks a change in that it advances a new corporate accountability model based on transparency, legally binding remedies for workers and a role for the active participation of workers’ organizations. Successful implementation of the accord will save lives in Bangladesh, and can also provide valuable lessons for developing similar safety initiatives. Liana Foxvog is director of organizing and communications at the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit