On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1100 garment workers, and injuring around 2500. This shocked the world, as the public demanded a change to the working conditions that created this disaster. Indeed, attempts had previously been made to create an agreement to ensure effective health and safety standards, however it was this horrifying event, and increased consumer pressure, that sped up the process, resulting in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2013).
The Accord is “a five year independent, legally binding agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions designed to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry” (The Accord, 2017). Many say the agreement is a ‘game-changer’ (Hensler & Blasi, 2013), due to unique features not typically seen in corporate social responsibility (CSR) agreements. However, others argue that it is not game changing, as it fails to address the root issues creating poor working conditions. As we prepare for the renewal of the Bangladesh Accord this May, I delve into both arguments.
The Accord is a Game Changer
When brands sign the agreement, they are legally bound to it. This means they must fund inspections and factory repairs, and are responsible for any hazardous factories and their workers (Leibson, 2015). This is ‘game-changing’, as CSR programmes are typically voluntary, with little negative repercussions for brands, so brands feels less obliged to comply with rules (Donaghey & Reinecke, 2017). For example, a comparison is often drawn between the Accord and The Alliance, a CSR-based agreement also drawn up after the Rana Plaza collapse. One report found that despite the Alliance having inspected more factories, fewer factories were closed down (Greenhouse & Harris, 2014). This suggests that potential hazards in these factories were not addressed, demonstrating a lack of compulsion among the signatories to act upon findings.
The Accord also ensures factory inspection results are made public, putting pressure on companies to ensure the safety of their workers, in fear of their reputation being tarnished (Rahman, 2014). Inspections are conducted independently, ensuring brands have no influence over results, which can lead to fundamental issues being hidden by brands. Indeed, last year, Nike attempted to prevent independent inspections in one of their factories, where workers had gone on strike (Jamieson, 2017). Attempts such as these to keep the conditions of workers silent through self-regulated inspections would not take place under the Accord. Moreover, when reviewing reports covering 175 factories covered by both the Accord and the Alliance, while the Accord reports indicated more than half of these factories had not adequately improved, with details describing each situation, the Alliance had marked them ambiguously as ‘on track’, with no further insight (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2016). This ambiguity makes it difficult for the public to know exactly what the conditions of these factories are, allowing brands to hide poor working conditions without fear of being penalised.
There is also a large emphasis on worker empowerment (Donaghey and Reinecke, 2017). For example, Bangladeshi unions were at the forefront of negotiations from the beginning, and form 50% of the core decision-making committee. Many global trade unions argue that previous CSR initiatives failed, due to the exclusion of workers, and that through inclusion, this has created a balance of interests between workers and brands. Indeed, Donahey and Reinecke (2017) found that in important discussions, unions brought up crucial points, including brand responsibility in financing factory remediation and compensation, and raised workers’ complaints. These points, particularly workers’ concerns, may not have been heard without the presences of trade unions. Indeed, Ozkazanc (2018) stresses the importance of subaltern agency, that is, allowing workers to make decisions that influence their lives, as opposed to being silenced and subjugated to Western ideals of how their working conditions should be.
Therefore, in comparison to CSR practices, through increased engagement with workers, transparency, and brands being compelled to act, this agreement could be considered a game-changer.
It is not a game changer
However, it is argued that this is not the case. Indeed, Scheper (2017) argues the Accord does not address the system that allows poor working conditions to exist in the first place, that is, the exploitation of workers in the Global South by corporations in the West for profits (i.e. supply-chain capitalism). He argues that the Accord acts on the basis of this system, further perpetuating the economic power relation between the brand and workers, as brands continue to hold a high stake in how workers’ lives are improved.
Similarly, Ozkazanc (2018) argues the Accord creates a relationship with workers similar to that of CSR agreements, as it continues the “gendered neocolonial relations” that perpetuate poor conditions. This refers to the idea that relations between brands in the Global North and workers in the South via approaches including the Accord are a means through which the North can maintain exploitative relationships, first introduced when the British invaded these countries. In creating a subordinated relationship, where developing countries depend on the North for economic growth, this justifies their entrance into these countries, allowing them to exploit pre-existing gender oppression to extract profit; hiring women on low wages and under exploitative conditions. Thus, by allowing brands to sign up to such agreements, while simultaneously allowing them to maintain these exploitative relations, this could be considered far from a game-changer.
In conclusion, it is clear that the Accord has demonstrated its uniqueness, in that it includes workers, as well as legally compels brands to act. While this has resulted in significant changes that will undoubtedly protect lives, overall, the agreement appears to act as a band-aid to the garment industry. It aims to improve lives without addressing the system that is perpetuating these problems, embedding itself within capitalism and neocolonial relations. As the new Accord is on its way, those involved should address these core issues and how we can dismantle them, so agreements such as the Accord should never have to exist.
[note: I only had 1000 words for this essay, so couldn’t completely elaborate my opinion. I support the Accord, but we also need to look to find ways to address the systematic issues of exploitation]
Brown, H. (23 January 2018) Bangladesh textiles union settles $2.3m safety case, Drapers.
Clean Clothes Campaign & Maquila Solidarity Network. (2013) The History behind the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord. Available from: https://cleanclothes.org/resources/background/history-bangladesh-safety-accord/view [Accessed 20 February 2018]
Clean Clothes Campaign (21 November 2016). Alliance for Bangladesh worker safety overstates Progress while workers’ lives remain at risk. Available from https://cleanclothes.org/news/2016/11/21/alliance-for-bangladesh-worker-safety-overstates-progress-while-workers-lives-remain-at-risk [Accessed 20 Februray 2018]
Donaghey, J. and Reinecke, J. (2017). When Industrial Democracy Meets Corporate Social Responsibility—A Comparison of the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance as Responses to the Rana Plaza Disaster. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 56(1), pp. 14-42.
Greenhouse, S. & Harris, E. A. (21 April 2014). Battling for a Safer Bangladesh. The New York Times.
Hensler, B. & Blasi, J. (2013). Making Global Corporations’ Labor Rights Commitments Legally Enforceable: The Bangladesh Breakthrough. Workers Right Consortium.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. (2017) About the Accord. Available from: http://bangladeshaccord.org/ [Accessed 20 February 2018]
The Daily Star (22 December 2017) 75pc women garment workers face verbal abuse: study. Avaiable from: http://www.thedailystar.net/business/column/75pc-women-garment-workers-face-verbal-abuse-study-1508695 [Accessed 21 February 2018]
Leibson, S. (2015). Lessons from Bangladesh. Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, pp. 74-75.
Ozkazanc-Pan, B. (2018). CSR as Gendered Neocoloniality in the Global South. Journal of Business Ethics, pp.1-14.
Rahman, M.Z. (2014). Accord on” Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”: A Breakthrough Agreement?. Nordic journal of working life studies, 4(1), p.69-74.