On 18 May 2022, COSH! attended a work session organised by the Fair Wear Foundation. The session was titled: "The International Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry" or "The International Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry". This session provided an overview of this agreement's background, objectives, drawbacks, and benefits. Member brands and stakeholders were also invited to share their opinions, reservations and beliefs.
The International Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Clothing Industry
The Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) is a non-profit organisation (NGO) that advocates for a better way of making clothes. The organisation helps workers have their rights respected and obtain a safe, dignified, and well-paid job. As part of this mission, FWF has decided to highlight the International Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry (International Agreement) which directly concerns the rights of workers in the Global South.
The International Accord is a legally binding agreement that came into being on September 1, 2021, in response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured over 2,000. It is an initiative of UNI Global Union (formerly Union Network International), a global union federation, bringing together national and regional unions and IndustriALL, a global union federation representing more than 50 million workers in over 140 countries. They built on The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh
signed on 24 April 2013. The 2013 agreement is already an independent and legally binding five-year global framework agreement. It is concluded between global brands and aims to make working conditions in the ready-made garment industry safer.
The main industry in Bangladesh is garments, which is the main economic activity of the country. However, every year and even every month since the great fire of December 27, 1990, which claimed the lives of 27 workers, fires break out in the factories. It is therefore urgent to act!
The Bangladesh International Accord. It is agreed between brands, retailers, and trade unions for 26 months and aims at securing the ready-to-wear factories. The brands pay a contribution according to the number of factories in Bangladesh. They also have to work closely with their suppliers to put in place action plans after complaints from workers. Brands must ensure that financial conditions are available, for example: anticipating payments or offering long-term commitments.
Its application in the field
The accord is signed by more than 170 brands with factories and resources in Bangladesh.
The accord focuses on 3 aspects:
Independent inspections of fire safety, electrical, structural and heating systems, with the implementation of Corrective Action Plans (CAPs).
The creation of a Health and Safety Committee and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) training program.
The establishment of the Complaint Mechanism for Workers' Safety and Health.
At the factory level, the implementation of the Accord involves independent inspections of the factory by engineers who must then write a report, after which the factories and brands must put in place action plans. Several buildings with life-threatening hazards for workers have been identified since the implementation. Regular inspections are then carried out to monitor and check the progress of the safety rehabilitation. The Health and Safety Committee is also responsible for organising training, tours, and meetings on safety in the factory.
Workers have a health and safety complaint mechanism. Workers can raise their concerns in a safe and confidential manner. If a complaint is filed, it is investigated in cooperation with worker representatives. The goal is to resolve these complaints at the lowest level. When the issue is resolved, the information is sent to all workers in the factory for greater transparency.
Benefits for workers
The agreement is signed by the biggest clothing brands! Among the members are Primark, the Inditex group (Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho, and Zara Home), Hema, C&A, H&M, and Mango. The brands have invested more than $60 million in the Bangladesh program. In addition to this, the Accord International is being monitored by four major NGOs: the Worker Rights Consortium, the Maquila Solidarity Network, the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, and the Clean Clothes Campaign, which is the largest alliance of trade unions and NGOs in the garment sector. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is also present to ensure that workers' rights are respected. These bodies are a great asset.
According to Joris Oldenziel, Executive Director - International Accord, since implementation, more than 38,000 inspections and follow-ups have been carried out. More than 150,000 fire and electrical refurbishments have been scheduled. 1.8 million workers have been trained in essential workplace safety, and 1,475 safety complaints have been received and investigated (90% closed). Since June 1, 2020, 361 plants have been taken out of service and are now safe.
This agreement allows for a baseline of social dialogue. It provides tools that give workers in the Global South supply chains a greater voice. In addition, the agreement enables brands to meet their human rights due to diligence objectives. They can also coordinate their engagement with factories of another leading brand to avoid duplication of effort. Brands have access to specialized technical expertise in fire and building safety.
The next step would be to transpose this system in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Morocco and for more initiatives to come from governments. The brands must therefore take responsibility, act quickly and ensure that their funds are used.
A real constraint for large companies?
This agreement is a step forward towards respect for human beings and their rights in the workplace. It is legally binding, which means that member brands
are obliged to implement the actions agreed upon in the Accord. For example, they have committed to support the Ready-made Garment Sustainability Council (RSC), an independent body that has set up health and safety programs in Bangladesh.
Despite many advances on the ground, it is difficult not to doubt its effectiveness, as many of the member brands are owned by large retailers or are fast-fashion brands with numerous scandals. Some of the Accord's member brands are also present on Raphaël Glucksmann's "List of Shame". These brands are accused of benefiting from the forced labor of Uyghurs. We find the Inditex group or Adidas for example.
The second problem is that the big brands or companies pay a fixed fee that does not depend on their turnover. According to him, this tier system is very favourable to large groups and unfair to small and medium-sized companies. Indeed, a small or medium-sized company, depending on the number of factories it uses, can pay the same flat rate as a large company with a higher turnover. Indeed, no large group would have signed the agreement if the amount was not fixed. The lawyers would have blocked the project. This strategy is more inclusive. Not every factory in Bangladesh can become 100% safe today. It is a long process and we should not scare and close the door to big companies.
The agreement currently only covers factories in Bangladesh, and those particular factories have made great improvements. However, simply becoming a member of the agreement cannot absolve brands of their responsibilities in other countries. Many of the brands in the agreement are owned by retailers or are themselves fast fashion brands with a history of scandals. Some are also on Raphaël Glucksmann's "Shame List". This list includes brands that are accused of benefiting from the forced labour of Uyghurs in Chinese factories. We find the Inditex group or Adidas for example. Let's hope that the agreement will be extended to the whole of Asia and why not to Africa in the future.
In regards joining the Agreement, large and small companies pay a fixed fee that cannot exceed a certain amount. This fee does not depend on their turnover! This system seems to be more favourable to large companies because the calculation is based on the total FOB value of products from Bangladesh and the number of factories producing for the brands in Bangladesh. Under this system, a small or medium-sized company may pay as much to be part of the Agreement as a large company with a higher turnover. However, "almost 50% of the 174 signatories to the Agreement source less than $10 million a year from Bangladesh. Therefore, their annual fees range from less than $1,000 to $8,000. The highest fee cannot exceed $350,000. No large company would have signed an agreement without a fixed amount, as their lawyers would have blocked the project. The Agreement is therefore intended to be inclusive. It is also possible that without the adherence of the big groups the Agreement would not have had such a large scope. So perhaps we should not scare away and shut the door to the big groups that own several factories in Bangladesh.
At COSH! we welcome any initiative that aims to respect workers and the environment. Let's let the agreement prove itself and hope to see a more radical change in the future. However, consumers need to be aware that a positive measure in one country does not absolve a brand of its responsibilities in other countries. In our view, brands should not communicate about this initiative if they continue to act in a negative way in other countries. This would mislead consumers.
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