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Empowering garment workers in Bangladesh: The unfinished work of European retailers

Hasnat M. Alamgir | November 12, 2020 00:00:00

Following a series of garment factory fire and building collapses during the last decade that killed hundreds of garment workers and mutilated thousands more, the Western large retailers mostly from Europe formed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord) to advance workplace safety in Bangladesh's garment sector. The Accord was a legally-binding contract between global brands and retailers and IndustriALL Global Union and UNI Global Union and their Bangladeshi affiliated unions to work towards a safe and healthy garment and textile industry in Bangladesh. Accord was formed "to help ensure that no garment worker needs to fear fire, building collapses or other accidents that can be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures". Over 220 companies signed the agreement and for a period of five years, Accord had taken several initiatives to accomplish its obligation. Accord had to end its tenure in June 2020 after losing a legal battle to continue operations.

Accord's founding and pursuits generated a lot of curiosity and contentions inside and outside Bangladesh. An objective look at their initiatives and learning about what worked in Bangladesh would benefit all stakeholders within and outside Bangladesh. The evidence generated from such an appraisal will help the European retailers imitate this Bangladesh model to other industries and countries and propagate their lessons from where they also procure clothes and other merchandise. More than 1600 garment factories in Bangladesh were covered under Accord's umbrella that employed around 2 million garment workers. The European garment retailers i.e., Accord has claimed that by May 2018, their work had contributed significantly to make workplaces safer for millions of Bangladeshi garment workers.

Among many of its initiatives was a major one to form Safety Committees at the factories and organise training programmes on safety. Another of its major initiatives was to "create an independent Complaints Mechanism for workers and protect them against retaliation for utilising it". Through this mechanism, workers and their representatives at Accord-covered factories were to raise concerns about health and safety risks safely and privately. All complaints were to be initially assessed to determine if they fell under Accord's safety and health responsibility.

It was expected that Accord's achievements in these two dimensions might create a long term safety culture in Bangladeshi garment factories. All publicly available reports of Accord that were available online on its website were retrieved and then analysed. Information was gathered on number of Safety Committees formed, Safety Training Programs completed, and Safety and Health Complaints reported.

After thoroughly checking their website, it appears that Accord worked with 1600 factories that employed around 2 million garment workers. A total of 1242 Safety Committees were formed in five years. This means at the end of its tenure, Accord could not form Safety Committees in 22.3 per cent of their factories. No further information was available on these Safety Committees regarding the composition, worker representation and operations of these committees; the meeting agenda, records and minutes were not disclosed either.

About Safety Training Programmes, Accord completed Safety Training in 721 factories (44 per cent) out of 1648 in five years. In the majority of their factories, the training programme was either still ongoing or yet to start.

According to Accord's own published reports, they received a total of 2,278 complaints in five years from their 1600 factories.

Analysing these numbers make several issues evident. The total number of complaints they received were particularly low given the number of factories they covered, and workforce shielded under their umbrella. With only 2,278 complaints (even if they all were indeed occupational health and safety related) in five years from 1600 factories, on average one garment factory made about 1.42 complaints during this period. In terms of workers, this translates into 1.1 complaints per 1000 workers in five years. It may seem that workers were not trained or informed well on what exactly to report as only about 39 per cent (688 Safety complaints resolved and 202 Safety complaints in progress totaled to 890) out of 2278 appeared relevant for Accord to act on.

The sequence of regrettable garment factory disasters in Bangladesh created an immense push to improve working conditions of the workers. Factory owners and the government were under strong scrutiny to take meaningful actions. Factory owners at that moment would comply with almost any recommendations coming from their powerful and large buyers given they were under existential threat. The European companies could take advantage of this motivation particularly when they were all together under one aegis for five years. Yet, their achievements in the worker empowerment realm are insignificant; it appears that there was an unenthusiastic attention among the European companies to act in establishing and functioning Safety Committees.

It appears that Accord went for volume of coverage in terms of number of factories and workers rather than the quality or substance of its important initiatives. The European companies with their tremendous political power, buying capacity and influence certainly did not do a good job in making the worker empowerment system operational. It becomes quite apparent that Accord focused its endeavours mostly on ensuring physical safety of the garment workers in Bangladesh-- addressing their immediate and life-threatening dangers related to building, fire and electrical safety.

This was the first time the European giant retailers seemed to have shown a shared interest in improving the working conditions and about the health and safety of millions of garment workers who are knitting and sewing clothes for the European consumers to make their living. Bangladesh became a global test case to see what the European companies can or are ready to do to preserve workers' health and safety in their global supply chain. The series of garment factory disasters in Bangladesh created an enormous opportunity to make real changes to improve working conditions for these workers. The European companies could have capitalised on this momentum. Yet, the achievements made in their worker empowerment mandate has not been up to the mark.

Hasnat M. Alamgir is Professor, Department of Pharmacy, East West University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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