In a previous article, concerning the International Agreement on Health and Safety in the Bangladesh Textile and Garment Industry, we detailed its application on the ground and its possible obstacles. Today, the agreement covers 1449 factories employing about 2.2 million workers.

The signatory companies were mainly fast fashion brands such as Adidas, H&M, or Inditex. But what about other countries, where these same brands continue to endanger their workers?

Photographer: Artem Beliaikin | Source: Unsplash

Clean Clothes Campaign and its allies have been meeting for several months to ensure that the implementation of the International Accord takes place in Pakistan as soon as possible. And it’s finally happening! In December, union leaders Nasir Mansoor, General Secretary of the Pakistan National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), Zehra Khan, General Secretary of the Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF), and Seemi Mustafa, a garment worker, met in Brussels with policymakers, garment brand representatives, journalists, and other stakeholders. COSH! aims to make it easier for consumers to buy eco-friendly products, but this acceleration must also be achieved through legislation.

Why Pakistan after Bangladesh?

The textile industry: the backbone of Pakistan

From raw material to garment manufacturing, the textile industry represents 8.5% of the GDP, 40% of employment, and 70% of exports. The country hosts factories of the biggest European and American brands. Revenues amount to billions of dollars. However, Pakistan remains a dangerous country for workers. Going to work means risking your life. Indeed, on September 11, 2012, a horrific fire took place at the Ali Enterprises Garment Factory in Karachi's Baldia City. More than 250 people were killed and over 50 were seriously injured. To this date, the German company KIK, which purchased most of its production there, and the factory owner have paid the families of the victims the equivalent of 1.33 million euros in emergency compensation, but the investigation report by the Pakistani judiciary was overwhelming. The workers were working with old machines (which could heat up). The emergency exits were not in order and the employees were not trained in fire prevention. In addition, the facility had been inspected and audited for safety criteria twenty-two days prior to the fire and had received an SA8000 certificate of compliance from the Italian company RINA. The SA8000 certificate is an international standard that encourages organizations to develop, maintain and adopt socially acceptable practices in the workplace.

Today, in the absence of genuine, credible, and transparent inspections, textile factories in Pakistan remain at risk. The deadliest fire in the history of textiles has not changed that. Workers are still getting injured or dying on the job, and safety depends on the goodwill of brands.

Source: Unsplash

The importance of this visit

Clean Clothes through investigations has found numerous violations in Pakistan by the same brands that signed the Bangladesh Accord. UNI Deputy General Secretary Alke Boessiger, who is a key negotiator of the International Accord said, "As we remember and mourn those who perished in the devastating Ali Enterprises fire ten years ago, we demand a secure future for all textile and garment workers in Pakistan."

Pakistani union representatives, therefore, began this advocacy tour in Brussels, The Hague, and Amsterdam to discuss the need for strong legislation along the supply chain. The aim of the visit was to force companies to respect human rights principles.

The three representatives provided testimony on the working conditions of workers in Pakistan with respect to health and safety, gender-based violence, the right to organize, and payment of wages. Seemi Mustafa, a garment worker, said, "I have seen firsthand that factory managers often ignore women workers who defend their rights and respond with intimidation and violence. Strong laws are needed to ensure that garment factory workers are treated decently."

Highlights of the Clean Clothes Campaign report in Pakistan

Voices from the field

In a report entitled: "Deadly safety hazards in factories supplying major international brands show an immediate need for accord expansion to Pakistan", Clean Clothes Campaign outlines the urgent need to expand the International Accord to Pakistan. Recalling, first of all, the conditions in which the deadly fire of September 11, 2012, took place, but also highlighting the lack of initiatives by brands.

Image credits: Clean Clothes Campaign

Clean Clothes Campaign and the Welsh Institute for Social and Economic Research and Data (WISERD) at Cardiff University noted that, "85% of workers surveyed said they did not have access to properly closed exit stairwells in the event of a fire. One in five workers reported that their workplace did not conduct fire drills and were not aware of fire escape routes and exits." According to Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour and Educational Research (PILER), "Pakistan's textile sector urgently needs to put in place responsible inspections in line with international standards and integrated into a system that is appropriate to the national situation, and thus prevent factories from becoming death traps for the workers who work there."

Trade unions, labor organizations in Pakistan, international unions, human rights organizations, and some brands have been pushing for the agreement to be adopted as soon as possible. It is good news that it was adopted in 2022.

What was the blockage?

A blockage from the brands

The report underlines that the signatories of the Bangladesh accord are big brands, mostly European, with a turnover of millions of dollars or more. They are therefore brands that have the financial means to improve the condition of their employees. However, some brands refused to allow their representatives to join their union counterparts to support the launch of the agreement in Pakistan. The agreement was deliberately held up by brands who wanted to negotiate their commitment at all costs.

The Clean Clothes Campaign had asked the brands on the International Agreement Steering Committee to stop delaying the expansion of the Accord's program. Now that it has been adopted, independent inspections of Pakistani factories under the supervision of the Accord must be launched immediately.

Photographer: Bozhin Karaivanov | Source: Unsplash

A binding issue for brands

There has been bad faith on the part of brands. This was linked to the financing of the new agreement. Indeed, the brands now find themselves with twice or even three times as many factories to inspect. Moreover, when we say "International Accord" we mean "binding agreement". This means that the accord is legally binding. If the terms of the accord are not respected, the other party (the workers) can sue the brands. This agreement was created to protect workers from brands that violate human rights, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the principles of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on a daily basis.

The non-application of this agreement in Pakistan amply benefits the brands that let their employees work in dangerous conditions and situations that violate human rights with no protection mechanism for the potential victims. Yet according to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to "seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly related to their operations, products or services through their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts." Only this accord will initiate this protection.

The urgency

Clean Clothes Campaign and its allies have identified incidents in factories in Pakistan that supply brands such as H&M, C&A, Bestseller, and Inditex: "85% of workers surveyed said they did not have access to properly closed exit stairwells in case of fire. One in five workers said their workplace did not conduct fire drills and were unaware of emergency routes and exits."

According to the report, workers who supply C&A, H&M, and Bestseller said exits were blocked at their factories. They also witnessed explosions and were exposed to electric shocks and harmful substances. As for the workers of Inditex and H&M factories, they said they witnessed a fire in their factories and that gas leaks appeared.

Photographer: krakenimages | Source: Unsplash

Nasir Mansoor, secretary general of the National Federation of Trade Unions in Pakistan, said: "The incidents in the factories, highlighted by the workers in Pakistan, show how necessary the expansion of Accord is. Workers deserve to feel safe and protected when they go to work and it is the responsibility of the brands to ensure this, as they are the ones who benefit. Brands need to stop delaying the expansion process and take immediate steps to make factories safer."

All of this is damning when you consider that Pakistan has a status: Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+). The GSP status ( Generalized System of Preferences) allows partial or full duty-free treatment of exports to Europe for certain products. In exchange, the country must respect conventions in terms of health at work, employees' rights, etc. The Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) encourages developing countries to pursue sustainable development and good governance. To be eligible for this status, 27 international conventions on human rights, labor rights, the environment, and good governance must be implemented. Currently, the countries that benefit from this status are Bolivia, Cape Verde, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. So how is it that the violations listed by the Clean Clothes Campaign exist when Pakistan has this status?

The EU is therefore supposed to work closely with these countries to verify whether the conditions of the status are being met. This is also what Nasir Mansoor is asking. Furthermore, according to Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, due diligence legislation should fill in the gaps that the accord cannot reach. To learn more about due diligence, check out this blog on European legislation. The accord and other legislations could therefore fill the gaps as of January 16, 2023.

The details of the International Agreement in Pakistan and the signatories are not yet known. We will keep you informed as soon as we have more information.