Global rights and investors groups on Thursday called upon the apparel brands and buyers to sign a new legally binding agreement for the maintenance and expansion of the Bangladesh Accord to sustain the progress achieved in the country's readymade garment (RMG) industry.
Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) and Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) separately made the call one month before the expiry of the Accord as no brand signatories of Accord so far came forward in this regard.
They alleged that unless there is no enforceable brand commitment to ensure proper functioning of the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) and independent organisation to report on its performance, the RSC would fail to serve a reliable guarantor of workers' safety especially amid the pandemic.
The ICCR formed the Bangladesh Investor Initiative comprising 250 institutional investors with over $4.5 trillion in assets under management to press global companies sourcing in Bangladesh to become directly involved in helping to transform the Bangladesh apparel sector after the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24 in 2013 that killed more than 1100 garment workers.
The Bangladesh Accord was signed by over 200 brands and covers over 1600 factories, said a CCC statement adding that the binding contract that has been crucial to the programme's success and brands' compliance however runs out on 31 May.
"No brands or retailer that is currently a member of the Accord has yet signed a new agreement that would be legally enforceable upon member brands with Global Labour Union Federations UNI and IndustriALL," it said.
While there are first signs that some brands started to realise the need to commit to the unions' agreement proposal, most brands are still countering with watered down versions of the programme that carry a very real risk that workplace safety in Bangladesh would backslide to pre-Rana Plaza levels.
"Such an agreement is needed because, even though in Bangladesh the safety progress achieved since 2013 under the Accord agreement has been considerable, the work is not finished," it added.
Citing an example, the statement said in over 1,200 factories supplying Accord brands, verification of a properly installed fire alarm is still pending and in over 900 factories there are no guaranteed safe exit routes in case of an incident.
"These figures show that in order to continue safe lives, the work of the Accord cannot be allowed to stall or slow down," the CCC added.
Since the formation of the Accord, substantial progress has been made, though more remains to be achieved to completely eliminate the safety risks to workers, an ICCR statement said.
In June 2020, an agreement between trade unions, brands, and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Export Association (BGMEA) established the RSC in order to assume responsibility for the Accord inspection programme, utilising the Accord's protocols and systems.
This transition, to a local operation that is not defined by an enforceable agreement, was predicated on the continuation of the Accord, thus maintaining enforceable obligations for the brands participating in the RSC, said the ICCR statement.
In addition, it was felt this move would provide an independent accountability mechanism to ensure that the RSC fulfils its core mission of inspecting, remediating and when necessary, terminating factories that have failed to make the changes that could impact the life and death of workers.
"The RSC cannot serve as a reliable guarantor of workers' safety under those circumstances. Given the vulnerability of garment workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many workers have lost their jobs and healthcare and have been exposed to the virus given the difficulty of social distancing, it is all the more important to keep the Accord in place to ensure worker safety," the statement said.
"As investors in many of the global brands sourcing in Bangladesh, we urge brands to sign a new legally binding agreement with global unions," the ICCR said.
According to the ICCR, the new agreement should include enforceable obligations for brands that ensure worker health and safety is protected, maintain the role of the Accord secretariat as an independent mechanism of accountability for the RMG Sustainability Council.
It should also be international in scope, providing a framework to expand the Accord's lifesaving inspection and remediation programme to other countries where garment workers' lives are at risk from fires and structural failures.